Belonging and Diversity

Posted March 31st, 2010 in Diversity by Frerieke


By Frerieke van Bree

I am redefining myself, back in The Netherlands after nearly 4 years living in South Africa…

Looking back at a time of self-reflection, growth, cultural understanding, online media, finding passions and taking actions


I grew up in Rotterdam, a multi-cultural society in the 90ies.

Growing up with Diversity?

At our high school, we were really good at placing people in ‘boxes’. We categorized each other. Our categories ranged from ‘gabber‘ (right wing, some racists, Rotterdam terror corps), to bubbling-people (style of dance – the cool-and-the gang) to ‘hippies’ (left wing, alternative) to nerds. I floated around, being able to connect to any of the above mentioned categories. ( least, that is how I saw myself). Race or color was secondary to our ‘home-made’ categories.

I remember my father always spoke about ‘those foreigners’ (anybody who was not ‘white’ and ‘Dutch’) which used to make me very angry. “How should I call them?” He asked me. And I think my answer was: we are all the same. That was what I believed.

Technical University Delft was “white” and mostly full of ‘men’ with a Beta focus, statistics said: 80% male students. Did we fight for our female rights? We adjusted to living in a male environment. Delft female students are rough; big mouth and able to speak with the same ease as men about topics mostly considered ‘taboo’ for feminine mouths. What was it that I was missing and was part of me?

I found this out in Africa..

Where ‘white’ is not just white. In South Africa we have whites from British and Afrikaans decent. Be careful not to insult the one being part of the other. I could not integrate well with either one of the ‘whites’ in the beginning. Materialistic ‘having’ and perfect physical ‘being’ seemed to be taken to extremes in White South Africa. There I was, trying to run away from Western consumerism… I felt caught in a trap. South Africans ‘boxed’ me in. I was white.

Until I met an Afro-American lady. Two people from two continents met on the third. History defined us. My ‘whiteness’ brought me back to colonialism. Her ‘blackness’ made her find her ‘roots’ at the African continent. Black South Africans praised and adored her…the loud and well spoken American would speak out and was like a role model to the often silenced Africans – as scars from the oppression during ‘Apartheid’, their mouths seemed to be cemented. White South African’s found her intriguing. She looked them in the eye, dared to face them. I had a sudden shock of awareness. We were not all the same. Her blackness was so different than the average black South African. I was not like you and we would not all just be the same. I found myself in being different.

I started teaching ‘black’ and underprivileged students. I often wandered around in an all-black environment. That is where I got introduced to the spirit ofUbuntu” > A person is a person through other people. I learned through exercises that ‘black’ is also not just black in South Africa. To my surprise, the realization that we had more than one South African culture represented in our black classroom, was also an eye-opener for many of my students. In some class rooms we even had 4 cultures represented: Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu and Tswana.

Going ‘home’ to The Netherlands on holiday I would ask myself: is this where I belong? This cold, individualistic, capitalistic, money driven society, where I am just one of many? I miss something that I found in Africa, I miss my uniqueness

Cultures in South Africa started to intrigue me more and more. The more I stopped looking with my ‘specific’ eyes (from my own cultural perspective), the more I was able to understand others and the more welcomed I was by people from different races/ethnic backgrounds.

The understanding of other people’s stories came through courses in Landmark Education where a multi-cultural group of people would share personal challenges.

The crown of my understanding of diversity was created while working as the project coordinator for the South African NGO Umthombo Wesizwe. Children (10-12 year) from different communities (black, white, wealthy, Indian, religious, etc..) would work together on topics like emotional intelligence, cultural understanding, conflict resolution and inclusion. Parents shared their fears during meetings, they are used to socialize in their own circles (often of same race/religion/ethnic background). After our Pilot programme,  those same parents felt inspired by their own children who had been crossing racial / ethnic / religious borders. I realized how divided we live in this world and how much hope we can have for change, when we educate our children to understand them self and respect each other.

When I said goodbye to my South African students 2 weeks ago, I could truly say: I am who I am, thanks to you. Ubuntu. I felt I belonged at that place at that time thanks to the respect and curiosity of my students.

I was traveling with public transport last week back here in The Netherlands. A girl from Turkish decent was arguing with a ‘Dutch-white’ guy. He said: “go back to your own country”. She said: “fuck you”. He said: “I do not like your sort anyway”. And before they would get involved in a physical fight…I jumped up and in between them.

The stories we tell our self define us. The openness of the people around us makes us belong. It takes being open/having eyes wide open to engage with people that are open to you. We need to realize we tell our self a story. The story does not apply to another person.

What defines where we belong?

Did my Afro-American friend have more right to say she ‘belongs’ at the African continent then a 14 year old white student with a South African nationality? Do ‘whites’ not belong in Africa? Do I belong here because I was born here? Are third generation youngsters (born and bred in The Netherlands) from Turkish decent not as ‘Dutch’ as I am? Do I belong in The Netherlands because I am Dutch?

I believe that I belong because there is this multi-cultural society that is curious to know who I am.
I belong because I choose to be here with an open mind.

How does diversity shape my personality?

I belong because the story I tell myself is that I want to be here in this multi-cultural society.
I know myself thanks to the multi-cultural treasures/differences around me.

There are huge opportunities in defining our self through the variety of people around us. I look forward to meeting new racial/ethnic friends here in The Netherlands. I am excited about the fact that I am re-integrating into this multi-cultural society, of which I did not know the uniqueness’s before, because black or white was ‘all the same’ for me. I am blessed with the understanding of differences and I am happy we have multi cultural treasures in The Netherlands that can make each individual belong, when we choose to be open.

Now, how do we inspire others to be curious? How do we make sure people see differences?
And see uniqueness? And see uniqueness as treasures?

I can only give you tips of what helped me a lot, which is to ask myself the following questions:
What is it that makes me unique within this society where I feel like being one of many?
What unique cultures exist in my society that can inspire me to be my unique me?

Have fun on your diversity path!

Ubuntu versus Western Consumerism

Posted January 25th, 2009 in South Africa by Frérieke


By Frerieke van Bree

The birth of the ‘informal settlement’ (= the official name for ‘township’), goes back to the early 1900s, when the diamond and gold industries required workers from rural areas to come to the urban centers to provide labor. In the 1950ies the Apartheids regime and their Group areas act was the cause of forced removals, resulting in even more separation and the growth of the informal settlements.

1994, the end of the ‘separation’ (Apartheids) regime and the beginning of a free movement for any South African human being, meant a flow of families trying to find their luck away from the rural areas. The Townships experienced another huge increase in number of inhabitants.

2009, 15 years later, still 1.5 million people occupy ‘shacks’ (the structures constructed from waste material, mostly consisting of corrugated iron and timber)

Why is that number still so high? What is holding urban planners back from developing the empty sandy fields within the Townships? What is holding government back from replacing the informal settlements by RDP Housing?

A lot of people blame the so called ‘corrupted leadership’ within the country. I think that is an easy way out of facing reality and taking responsibility.

This week I attended a debate that was organized by the architectural firm I am working for, The main intention of the debate was to bring together different stakeholders (interested in urban planning and development within formal and informal settlements, the South African ‘Townships’). The goal was to continue the conversation about cooperation and development (No, it’s not a new conversation. Actually 15 years of talking has already past).

Talking, talking, talking…South Africans are good in talking -shit-. Where is the action? Where is the talk without judgment? When does the ego finally realize that success is not measured on the amount of talk about it, and has nothing to do with result either. Real success is to be found within the intention and the actions that are taken by compassionate individuals.

What made the debate this week different from all the previous ones in the last 15 years? >> Its’ location was quite unique: in the township. The ‘white jewel’ is a beautifully designed, modernistic building, shining bright. Yes the jewel is shining bright but also standing lonely on the Sandy grounds of Township’s Khayelitsha Central Business District (to be). The opening to the public will hopefully happen soon and it will then become clear if the architects and clients’ (city of Cape Town) intention was truly in benefit of all people, with needs identified from within the community…

A few kilometers up the road you’ll find the Lookout hill Center, constructed in 2003 with the goal to attract tourists and create a new market in the Township. This beautiful -but empty- building (it has almost not been used at all the past 5 years) reflects in my opinion a typical greedy consumer society development. Although I am not sure about the actual intention behind the building, the implemented current policy is in no way serving the community (local community is not allowed to use it and the flows of tourists are lacking). This makes me wonder who was suppose to benefit from the profits of this tourism market anyways? A sad story. The few local community members that occupy the craft market (that lacks visitors!) give meaning to an empty place, falling apart by the lack of maintenance..

Why do tourist not get to the lookout hill in Township Khayelitsha? Where is the ‘white’, wealthy man? Where is the ‘black’ brother that is celebrating life in the Suburbs?
The answer is mostly to be found in the fear that exists among above mentioned groups. This is a fear for hatred resulting in criminality.

Is that fear grounded? No. I have been going in and out the Townships for the past years and have only once seen a criminal action. My brother has once been threatened with a knife and forced to hand over his belongings in safe place, The Netherlands. Does he walk around fearful now?

Unfortunately, we create monsters. In the society of exclusion there will always be those who need to fight for the material that is to be said to be the road to success. The ego is a master in misleading consciousness…

What creates this fear? Or better: why do we allow the voice in our head to tell us that we need to be fearful? My two cents… a lack of understanding cultures.

Day 25_ understanding cultures: read this

Steven Otter writes in his book Khayelitsha, Umlungu in a Township: “This way of thinking comes from ignorance and stupidity, a combination that ruled our land for almost fifty years, and one that very nearly ruined the lot of us. And if, as white people, we continue to keep a distance between ourselves and the black man, how will we ever know him? How can we pass judgement on someone we don’t know? There are thousands of Ta-fumsas and Madibas out there, but we whites ignore them and do our best to encourage them to become the thugs we so desperately fear.”
(Steven has been living in Khayelitsha among the black community for a few years in 2002 and 2005.)

I highly recommend this book to every white person out there, to understand the communities in the South African Townships and more important, the spirit of Ubuntu:

“Umuntu ngumuntu nga bantu” an old Xhosa saying – meaning a person is a person because of other people.

Our Western consumerism tells us “to have is to be”. My status is measured on the material possessions I have. We become very individualistic, protecting our belongings from our neighbors. Our perception of community is very different from the African community of sharing.

Urban planners in South Africa are -unfortunately- predominantly white and brought up with the ‘Western perception of community’. We mirror our materialistic world view upon a community of Ubuntu. We tell them to put a fence around their house to be protected from criminality …while in fact we increase the criminal madness with our individualistic approach. By fencing each house, the street becomes no-mans-land, which can also be called: criminals playground!
…and so do we keep our own created fear alive and are able to proof our misleading fear-monster right: township is dangerous, black man is dangerous. You white fools! Wake up.

To go back to the debate this week, the main things we were talking about (that interested me) are cooperation and documentation.
Cooperation between:

  • Government (local, provincial and national > at the moment they often have conflicting requirements > how to get them on one line?)
  • Business (work together with the potential -previously underprivileged- entrepreneurs in the Townships: how to stimulate this?)
  • Transport/infrastructure sector (streets and transport nodes need to be ‘owned’ by the township dweller. Including a part of the public domain to the place you call home will lead to maintenance and crime prevention. “houses are built on foundations with walls and roof. Homes are built with things much deeper and less concrete” (Sandile Dikeni in the book Shack chic)
  • Urban planners/architects (think about your intentions! Get rid of the ego, listen, learn to understand cultures)
  • Community (how to -include- members of the community in the development process. Yes, a debate -open to the public- in the Township was a great first step. The language should be understandable for all, and members should be invited to come. The needs of the community need to be included in the policies and development plans that are being created)

Documentation: share knowledge. Don’t reinvent. Be creative in your ways. Use modern social media.

Instead of blaming the local and national governments of corruption (I am not saying corruption does not exist)…let us all focus on how to understand Ubuntu from our Consumerism glasses. Learn to understand cultures. Listen.

– Image MPC Khayelitsha by David Southwood
– 3d virtual images by Virtual Africa.
(explanation: image 1: on top of the Lookout hill in Khayelitsha, spot me and the Afrigadget girls on the pic! image2: Khayelitsha, Bonga Drive. Thank you Tinus from for this wonderful way of illustrating these words!)