Mano a mano: We must learn to talk to one another

Face-to-face engagement with a problem should be encouraged. It is good for human harmony and development, and costs nothing but decency.

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First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Rather than resolve often minor conflicts mano a mano – hand to hand as the Spanish say – many who find themselves living in former colonies have unconsciously internalised the one-step-removed method of resolving everyday conflict: calling in faceless “authorities”.

It is a lazy, ingrained and habitual response to conflict and difference that seeks to remove human contact and gentle friction, both vital in the pursuit of a more harmonious and respectful existence.

Let’s begin with Djo BaNkuna, the man hailed as the “Cabbage Bandit” and who has gone viral for daring, in a global pandemic in crushing economic circumstances, to grow food on a verge outside his residence, instead of grass.

Lawns, or grass, too have their roots in the taming of “alien” nature, but that is a chicken to tickle on another day. Suffice to say, in many of SA’s more affluent suburbs, grass settles the troubled soul seeking order.

Especially so if lawns are kept neat and nobody sits on them.

BaNkuna, as Maverick Citizen reported, is a resident of Theresa Park in Pretoria North who was threatened with arrest by Tshwane Metro Police after neighbours behind twitching curtains complained about his cabbages.

For three years BaNkuna has rotated his crops from pumpkin to sweet potatoes and cabbages on the verge outside his home. Maybe it was just the cabbages – the vegetable known as “the poor man’s friend” – that tripped the last residual colonial lightbulb in the mind of the person who complained.

BaNkuna is now a potential criminal, until the soldiers of social media stepped in when the constant gardener posted his experiences with “the authorities” on Facebook. He soon became People’s Hero No 1. Now, hundreds of South Africans have pledged to support BaNkuna and plant vegetables everywhere, hopefully running what passes for “law enforcement” off their tired feet.

There are cultures, and it must be mentioned that in this author’s experience they tend not to be Anglo-Saxon, where face-to-face engagement with a problem in a society or community is encouraged. It is good for human harmony and development, and costs nothing but decency.

My mother was Portuguese and I learned, through the lively discussions that took place in our kitchen and that sounded like “shouting”, that an issue of great importance was being “sorted out”. After the shouting followed laughter.

In South Africa there are many communities and cultures that have established gentle and constructive internal checks and balances when inevitable misunderstanding or turbulence comes a visiting.

It is the experience of the person on the other end of the remote-control law enforcement brigade who suffers alone the rage and pain, the sad indifference to “talking it out”.

A recent experience with a dog owner who was perceived to be “abusing” his dog and who had been visited previously by the SPCA found himself a target again this week.

The dog in question is a happy and loved dog. It is clear from his wagging tail and friendly hello to all who pass by. There are many other dogs in my neighbourhood who are left alone or who are seldom taken out for walks. He is not the only one.

When a second SPCA notice was stapled to the gate of his house, I queried if someone in the group had decided to contact them and perhaps it might have been better to approach the owner directly with any concerns.

Tsjoepstil.

Long story short. The family in question are not white or of Anglo-Saxon origin. In his broken mother tongue, X explained that the SPCA had previously cut the lock on his gate and taken and neutered his beloved dog without his permission.

Where he grew up – in a village trapped between Russia and China – there were animals all around him, he explained to me, searching for the right words in a language that does not roll easily off his tongue.

“I love my dog,” he said.

The disrespect, pain, hurt and rage caused by an unwillingness to engage with our neighbour in a manner that did not automatically assume abuse or transgression was palpable. It is the pain all “outsiders” feel in a community that seeks to remain homogeneous, isolated, hermetic, and which views anything or anyone outside of a personal understanding of the world as “suspicious”.

Each of us, if you think about it long enough, contains multitudes, and to live decently we need to open ourselves to each other’s real presence. Those who fear “conflict” or a violent escalation can always call in elders or experts who should be able to navigate a path to understanding and solidarity.

If not, then call in someone who understands the weight of the authority they carry on behalf of society as a whole and who will exercise it with compassion.

So, next time you want to rat on someone, do it yourself at least. Pick up your spine, walk out the door, shake their hand, and learn to talk. DM168

Marianne Thamm is Daily Maverick assistant editor.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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