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What Does It Mean To Be Canadian? South African?

Let’s have a conversation that makes us, Canadians, absolutely uncomfortable: cultural tensions. Whether they are rooted in language or in the old rivalry of the east coast versus the west coast, there is some tangible irritation when someone brings up these differences, forcing other groups to be confronted with conflicting versions of the Canadian.

Abroad, I always define myself as Canadian, until I am asked about my strange accent or how beautiful Vancouver is. Then, I rectify: “Well, I’m French Canadian, we’re a bit different than the rest of the country”. However, living abroad, and meeting Canadians along the way, I see more and more that the differences are superficial: the Quebecois culture defines itself in terms of movies, music, language, food and even political ideology.

Yet, our international reputation as individuals, personal experience and even the 2015 Federal elections have shown that our fundamental values and identity are more similar than dissimilar. Thus, these superficial differences create real cultural tensions between groups of people that see the world in a congruent way. For me, that was expressed in cultural confusion, navigating between what it means for me to be a Montrealer, Quebecois and Canadian versus what is expected from these sometimes conflicting groups.

In South Africa, cultural plurality defines the country. There are eleven official languages, many more cultural identities and a long history of intersectional oppressions. As South Africa is going through the adolescent years of its democracy, it is experiencing deep social, political, and economic conflicts rooted in resentment about the struggles of the past and insecurities about the future. I am overwhelmed by the complexity of what it means to be South African. I have had some exposure to different pockets of society as I actively engage in conversations that will enlighten me on the complicated texture of the rainbow country.

Maybe it stems from naivety; however, undoubtedly from curiosity, I ask friends, colleagues, uber drivers, cashiers and anyone who is up for an impromptu socio-political discussion. Predictably, they will answer that the country is rigged with deep corruption, political incompetence and will recount some anecdote about social mistrust - whatever their social class, education level, skin color or cultural group. The discussion almost certainly leads to the hopeless future of the country’s economy (granted, the rand depreciated by 27 percent to the US dollar in one year due to President Zuma firing two financial ministers in four days) and cultural tensions, driving hate crimes and brain drain. As political and social aspects tint the conversation, it allows for opportunities to prompt about the possible solutions to the lingering crisis. What I hear from individuals and from the media is an energetic commitment to grassroots movements paired with deep hopelessness about political affairs of South Africa.

I see apathy meeting mobilization, where it becomes increasingly evident by the high rates of crime and HIV-infection, that marginalized groups are not yet granted a voice or the agency to access their rights. What has become clear in the light of the work that I have been doing in gender-based violence and human rights is that although the Constitution of South Africa is incredibly inclusive for diverse groups, it has not been translated into tangible provision of rights for a vast portion of the population, who still struggle to access water, basic health care, and education.

This is of course my perception, informed both informally and formally, yet assuredly influenced by my own experiences of cultural tensions. However, what these difficult dynamics tell me is that distrust and apathy are rooted in ignorance. In South Africa just like in Canada, and across the world where the refugee crisis highlights deeply-seated national insecurities, education can breed more acceptance and open-mindedness in order to bridge the unavoidable collide of cultures.

Valeria is interning at the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, through the Department of International Development Studies at Dalhousie University.

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