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Gregory Fortuin: A Culturally Diverse Society

North Island Rotary Youth Leadership Conference

Weir House, Wellington, February 2005.


Address by Gregory Fortuin.

I thank you for the privilege of being a Key Note Speaker at your conference. When I was a teenager I knew all the answers to the world’s problems. In fact I had solutions to problems that had not even been invented yet. I am thus well aware of the challenge as a now not so young fella trying to impart a few thoughts to people who already know everything.

Let me state at the outset that while I will share a few personal experiences with you, I will never use my circumstances and the roll of Life’s Dice as a reason for some of my failures and imperfections. Of course Life is not fair! Even Jesus Christ said the poor you will always have with you and even more inexplicably He gave most of us 1 talent, a select few 5 talents and an Elite few 10 Talents. That’s the REALITY of LIFE and the WORLD DOES NOT OWE US A LIVING. Does that mean we all meekly accept what is dished out to us and quietly roll over and die? HELL NO. All I want to stress is that each one of us has a unique set of prints (DNA) and faces our own unique set of challenges armed with our unique supply of resources and to quote Morgan Freeman as Red in Shawshank Redemption we have a choice as to whether we “Get busy living or get busy dying”. I will touch on collective responsibility later, but initially I am speaking to you as an individual.

I briefly wish to broach the matter of Racism in order to move on and not confuse the “Diverse Society” debate. Racism is an issue that I feel strongly about. For me, growing up in South Africa, racism is not simply something that happens to others. The reality of racism was brought home to me in many ways before I came to this part of the world and the experience had proved invaluable during my 18 months as the Race Relations Conciliator.

In 2001 I traveled to Rwanda to address a conference on national reconciliation. In 1994 ethnic relations went horribly wrong and almost a million people were slaughtered in 3 months of brutality. Forever etched in my mind after walking those genocide sites will be the carnage of neighbour killing neighbour, husbands killing wives, children killing parents because they were or identified with the wrong ethnic group, i.e. Tutsi.

Genocide or any mass evil for that matter is normally masterminded by a very select few. What then follows is the gradual indoctrination and manipulation of the masses to become foot soldiers for the cause. They prey on the fact that we can all be easily conditioned. No child is born a racist, that child is influenced to become a racist. If you don’t believe me just check out the sandpit at the crèche. No one is born to hate, it is a cruel trait we acquire. Make no mistake - we all have the capacity to be racist and we all have our acquired prejudices. I challenge you to stand up in this auditorium today if you do not have a grain of acquired prejudice.

Ultimately though Human Tragedies like the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, the Genocide in Rwanda, the killing Fields of Cambodia or the Ethnic Cleansing in Kosovo were about POWER and GREED - NOT RACE and ETHNICITY. Two thousand years ago King Herod masterminded the cold-blooded murder of every Jewish baby boy because his power was threatened and not because he was anti-Semitic.

It is however very easy to pick these major events, but what is far more subtle is the daily systemic degradation of people because they are different. Be that the way they speak or what religion they uphold or don’t uphold, their facial features or simply for being pregnant women in the workforce as reported in major newspapers around the world a few weeks ago. (About 30,000 working women in Britain are fired, made redundant or leave their jobs every year because of pregnancy discrimination, an official report said. The Equal Opportunities Commission, the government agency that tackles sex discrimination, said 441,000 women per year worked while pregnant. Around half said they had suffered some form of discrimination because of their pregnancy, its research showed)

Back to wanting to understand what is meant by a “Diverse Society”.

In a world where less and less of us are of a “Pure Race” I wonder whether we have not overrated the significance of Race and Ethnicity as pillars of diversity because of its sensational nature. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely treasure my European and African Heritage, but that only determines where I have come from (my roots or whakapapa) – but not where I am going; not my dreams and aspirations, not my beliefs and value system nor the contribution I will make to society. My whole household is of the same ethnic heritage (all classified as Cape Coloured South Africans), but we are as diverse as they come. The fact that we get along well (ok reasonably well) has more to do with 1 simple value called “mutual respect” than our roots. On the other hand I know families of the same heritage who are absolutely tearing each other apart. The same goes for local neighbourhoods and streets. I live in a very diverse street (I suppose any street I lived in would be seen as diverse) based on our wide ranging heritages, occupations, hobbies, age groups, personalities, etc. Yet we have many things in common i.e. mutual respect for each other, concern for each others wellbeing, fun-loving, etc. It is time we stopped tolerating each other like temporary headaches and started respecting each other as fellow members of the human race.

Another common myth is confusing Race or Ethnicity for culture. For example, my 15 year old son and his ethnically diverse mates have a youth culture foreign to most of us as parents – A culture that says chuck all your clothes on the floor until you run out and pile up the dishes in your room (even when you are not allowed to eat in your room) has nothing to do with the colour of your skin. A culture that says only mum or dad are allowed to take the rubbish from the overflowing little bin in the kitchen to the big bin in the garage transcends all ethnic barriers. I can go on, but you get my drift. Culture is about behaviour and a belief-system not the shape of my nose or the slanting of my eyes.

Being born into a European family and having blonde hair does not automatically imply I will be successful, caring and loveable. Neither do being born into an African family and having pitch-black skin and curly hair translate into being a submissive slave that will never be destined for leadership or vice versa. Given that we are all unique the biggest threat to our COMMON HUMANITY is the gross generalisations and stereotyping. We all love to categorise and label everything, including people. As Homo sapiens it is rare to reserve judgment – instead we more often than not jump to superficial conclusions. Sometimes we are right and sometimes we are horribly wrong. But does it stop us next time? What do you think? I wonder if the fact that we are put into a box-shaped-cot at birth, sleep in a box-shaped-bed in our box-shaped-rooms until the day we leave this earth in a box-shaped-coffin is a factor in our desire to put people in their neat little boxes.

If we are going to unleash the amazing potential that resides in all of us to make a difference, we have to accept that we live in a fallen world and stuff happens. In the wonderful city of Porirua where I live, we use a different “S-Word” for stuff, but given that this is a decent gathering I will stick to stuff. Too many of us arrogantly assume we can control what happens. NASA with all its recourses and precautions will never be able to guarantee the safe launching or return of their spaceships. What we can control however is how we respond to what happens. That response is normally determined by our value system, our development and our life’s experiences. Let me share a few personal experiences of Stuff Happening and some of my not so good and occasionally better responses. (Wellington Club, car towed away)

Back to unleashing your potential! In order to unlock the great capabilities that lie deep within (and sometimes not so deep within) all of us we need to develop our gifts and skills. Being well nurtured as an infant is a great start but education both formal and informal is critical. All my school life I was normally in the top 3 in our class (albeit in a so-called “coloured school”). My burning aspiration was to become a doctor. Armed with a 1st class Matriculation Pass and a University exemption, in 1971 I applied to the Minister of Coloured Affairs and the “white” University of Cape Town for permission to study medicine. The Minister said “yes”, but UCT had already filled their Quota of “Non-White” students and I received a polite “Declined”. To say I was bitter towards “white people” and their “white education” would be an understatement. And for a while I was almost anti-education full stop. That was when a wise old man who I will tell you about a bit more later, told me that “we live in a fallen world and Stuff happens. How I respond would determine my future”.

And so I did it the hard way – working, studying, raising a family and heavy involvement in major community activities. It was a conscious response I had to make. I could have bemoaned my lot and played the victim, but I thankfully realised then that every challenge could be successfully met and every obstacle could be navigated…. the world did not owe me a living. (As an aside I have always enjoyed the startled looks on the Actuaries faces when this fella with no Qualifications on his CV totally understood annuity certains or could calculate the funding gap between future liabilities and earnings) Let me repeat the key message – you can meekly accept your “terrible lot” in life or you can dig deep and respond with powers you would be amazed you possessed. Let me also declare war on one of my pet hate words of the 90’s called “empowerment”. It implies that power is something that someone else gives you. You fill in a requisition form and sort of apply! Utter garbage. Power is never given, it is taken. You can have all the fancy titles and issue all the decrees you like, but unless you assume power you will remain powerless. It is up to you as an individual to assume that power.

However I do not want to see society’s responsibility lost amongst my challenge to you with regard to your personal responsibility in unleashing your potential. Research clearly shows that our environment and socio-economic conditions are major contributors to the fate of the masses. In addition no-matter how tough and motivated and talented we are, no human being has ever made it alone on a sustainable basis. We all need a shoulder to lean on.

All of us born on this earth, of whatever race and into whatever culture, want our time on this planet to be free from fear. All of us find torture painful, the inability to hold a view and express an opinion oppressive and arbitrary imprisonment dehumanising. No matter who we are, we want to live our lives with DIGNITY and MEANING. In short it is called being HUMAN. Irrespective of race, colour or creed we all crave this recognition of our humanity and respect for our dignity.

It was for this reason that under the Chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration on 10 December 1948. 100 years prior in 1848 a group of radical American women, amended the wise words of their forefather to “all men AND WOMEN are born equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights”

That does not mean that all Nations uphold these principles. The irony of 1948 is that that was the year the country of my birth embarked on a statutory programme of racial discrimination and gross violation of human rights. Not that South Africa was alone in its contempt for people of colour as the pleas of Martin Luther King jnr. in the USA or the vitriol of Enoch Powell in the UK in the 60’s clearly demonstrated. Maybe South Africa was the only honest racist – not that there can be any honour in the blatant degradation of other human beings, but you know what I mean.

Let me describe to you the society I was raised in. I was born in Rondebosch Cottage Hospital (nestled at the foot of the Majestic Table Mountain) shortly after the statutory formalisation of Apartheid {(Population Registration Act (whether I was white, coloured, black or other), Group Areas Act (where I could live), Communism Act (did I oppose Apartheid) and the Immorality Act (who I could have relationships with) and a host of other laws, but you get my drift}.

I was raised by a widowed mum and a grandmother. We were 3 boys aged 4, 6 and 7 when my father passed away and mum was a mere 27. My first hand experience will always make me extremely appreciative of the efforts of so many single mums raising rat bag kids, although I think we were lovable rat bags. In the 40’s my father had dug a well on our smallholding and planted fruit trees. We had a farmhouse + 8 families living in the out-houses. When I was growing up in the 60’s we were sending fruit to the market place. Mum had no formal qualifications and worked in a handbag factory and later as a nurse aid. Often times mum would come home after a long day at work and somebody on the small holding would complain about one thing or the other. Mum would have no hesitation in disciplining us. (Those we the days when it was OK to discipline your kids without it being called abuse). Let me stress that I have never been abused, but often disciplined. There were however times when we were just too much for mum and she would turn to this illiterate old man in this exclusive church that we were raised. He could not read or write, but he was the salt of the earth. He would often sit us down and say “in 20 years from now will you be embarrassed about your actions today”. He always challenged us about taking responsibility for our actions and the impact of present actions on future possibilities. He provided guidance, support and even admonishment, but never was he judgemental or did he condemn us. He was always there. Even when I got my first long pants suit at the age of 14, he took me. Apart from my mother and grandmother this old man will forever rate as the person who had the greatest influence on the lives of three “so called coloured kids” in a “so called dysfunctional family without a dad”.

Valentines weekend 1997 we lost 4 young people in the area that I live. One of them was a suicide. When I stood on the balcony of my comfortable home in Whitby and could see the spot where the young boy lost his life, I knew it was time for me to go wider than the mentoring of the kids in Elsdon and Cannons Creek and to get involved in my immediate neighbourhood. On the Monday morning I went and visited my neighbour who has since become my very good friend and together we launched the youth suicide awareness trust. But that Monday morning seeing the uncontrollable sobs of a father whose son hung himself right opposite his home will forever haunt me as my greatest moment of inadequacy. That moment I knew there was nothing I could ever do for Pete that would ever make it right again. Over the past 8 years I have sat with parents from Invercargill to the top of the North Island. Parents who have questions and a pain that refuses to go away. I discovered then that there were 150 sets of families who lost their precious kids to this carnage that year. That is almost 3 kids a week. Although many people are doing many useful things, I wish I could do one thing for all the kids of this great country.

That one thing would not be more money in mental health, although that is always useful. It would not be more onerous responsibility on the wonderful school councillors to whom we have already abrogated too many of our responsibilities. That one thing would not be another 10 steps to better parenting. I wish I could waive a magic wand and do 1 thing. I wish I could give every single kid of this blessed country a papa Zwaan. Someone who they can call at 2am in the morning and say I am feeling so desperate and know someone will be there for them. Two years ago I had a desperate call in the middle of the night from a young man who said “can you please come and get me, so and so is being violent, but please don’t call the police”. I was a bit scared, but went and this young man will always know that I came. I wish I could give the kids of this country someone they can call to bounce a ball with or bounce some ideas off. But most importantly someone who will be there, no matter what – their very own papa Zwaan.

In December of 1999 I took my family to celebrate the new millennium back in the country of my birth. Many colleagues wanted to know why I wanted to go to South Africa when New Zealand would be the first country in the world to usher in the 21st century. However, when on New Year’s Eve, my two brothers and I, our wives and children and our mother stood on top of Table Mountain no first in the world could ever compete with that deep feeling of inner joy. I was at a special place at a special time with very special people, my family. The tragedy is too often we take our loved ones for granted and often neglect to experience the pleasure of quality time with family and friends – too often we wake up when it is far too late.

A few days later I took my family to Paarl to go and visit my old stomping ground - The place where my brothers and I were raised alongside the kids of eight other families - The place of many pleasant memories until we were kicked off our land by the stroke of an apartheid government pen. The old farmhouse is still standing, but the outhouses and fruit trees no longer exist. In its place are 12 houses, occupied by white South African families. “Don’t you hate these people who live here now and especially those who did this to you” my 10 year old asked of me. “Of course I am saddened about the injustices that occurred” I replied, “but there will be no future without forgiveness. I will remain my own jailor unless I learn to forgive. I have the power to stop the cycle of hatred.

Those who have unleashed their potential have not done it because of their ability to write business plans and strategic plans. They have been passionate individuals committed to their dreams and prepared to pay whatever the price. Let me tell you of yesterday’s terrorist who has become the statesman of the last century. (Tell the Mandela story)

There were also the stories of the Robert Sobukwes & Steven Bikos who preached the powerful message of walking tall and dignified, being proud of who you are, stop blaming them.

Let me however warn against trying to achieve noble dreams by dishonest means, because you will reap what you so. You will never succeed in restoring your own humanity by stripping someone else’s of his or hers. Or as Dr Martin Luther King jnr so eloquently stated to “my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads to the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggles on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”

(Ben Johston Story)

And finally with the eye on the future, one day when you achieve what you set out to do, when you have unleashed all your potential never ever forget your small beginnings.

At the start of the new millennium, my 2 brothers and I with all our families went and gathered from their state homes the remnants of those eight families that lived in the outhouses on my grandmother’s property. We spent a marvellous day reminiscing at a resort in Cape Town. As we were reminiscing, one of the old ladies said, “Gregory, we are so thankful that the South African Consul in New Zealand still remembers us”. I said to her “Aunty Anna when we were 3 so-called coloured kids without a dad, you were my people, God help me the day I ever forget my small beginnings”. God help me the day I ever forget that a widowed mum pushed two single beds together and she and 3 little boys slept on it. Too often we achieve these supposedly positions of importance in life and we forget who we once were.

And so I say to you today, go and realise your dreams and fulfil your potential, live and enjoy life and never turn your back on all those people who assisted you in climbing every mountain.

God Bless


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