Bridges, wall and the Other: John Carlin brings Mandela in Bolzano

John Carlin is a tall man. He is serious, humorous and realistic. He is a journalist, and during the many years of his career, he has worked in Europe, Central and South America and in South Africa. Here, he has known one of the greatest activists and statemen of all times: Nelson Mandela.

On Friday, 10th May, John Carlin was in Bolzano (Italy) to talk about him, about Mandela. His intervention was part of a project organised by the Centro per la Pace di Bolzano in collaboration with the Centro Antirazzista Benny Nato and focused on a photographic exposition entitled South Africa and the Italian support against apartheid. The exposition itself was first exhibited in 2004, on the 10th anniversary of the end of the racial segregation in South Africa.

The aim of the whole project is to remind the current Italian society the efforts made by the past society to fight against all kinds of discrimination – ethnic, economic, political, social, cultural. It is also to encourage everybody to keep on fighting, especially in a historical moment when the world seems to be haunted by nightmares that tell stories of close-mindedness, exclusion, supremacy, primacy of some human beings over others. Nightmares which whisper that it is impossible to build means of communication and to share them with those that are different from us.

And around these themes revolves the dialogue with John Carlin, who had the opportunity to be a witness of the world and of the work of someone who really tried to change it for the better.

Thinking about the reason you are in Bolzano I was wondering how to define apartheid. I tried with “the hatred and disgust of the Other that become a system of institutionalised discrimination”. But I would like your opinion and I would also like to know if you can tell what the origin of apartheid is, maybe considering the present situation of Europe.
It is a very complicated question. You use the word hatred, but I would rather prefer fear… Fear of the unknown that might or might not generate disgust. Because the fear of what is not usual has always been the origin of hate. We are talking about something very profound in humans. The South-African fear, translated into the apartheid, was shown and narrated in a very simple way as if it were a children parable: all was clear, there was black and there was white and there was the clear difference between them.

However, racism is not only South-African: it is universal. The first human beings moved from Africa northwards and arrived in what is now called the Middle East. Five thousand years later, other human beings moved from Africa towards the same territories and there they were rejected because considered different. Racism is everywhere. It is not only what we Europeans think it is, that is the discriminating action of the white against the black: black people are racist as well and their targets could be other black people. It happens in Africa. I know Rwanda very well and I can say with certainty that the Tutsis and the Hutus are very similar: the 1994 genocide, because of which thousands and thousands of Hutus died at the hands of Tutsis, is clear example of racism.

And what is the situation in South Africa today? Which forms has racism taken?

Today there is still racism in South Africa. There is the one of the whites against the blacks and this is an old story… The thing is that, since South Africa became a democracy, the country has been the destination of many African migrants looking for better economic conditions – much like what Mexicans are doing when crossing the US border. These migrants come from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Congo, Sudan, Zambia, everywhere. And most of them are treated with extreme racism, with impressing xenophobia by South Africans. We talk about aggressions, violence. All because they speak different languages, because they are different.

So, nobody is safe, not even those who experimented institutionalised racism…

Well, I think it is important to consider racism within the universal human context and not to define it only as the behaviour of us rich white people against the poor black others. It is an all-pervading phenomenon, transversal to all places and times. It is in South America, Asia… The exceptionality of South Africa was that racism was obvious, clear. If the apartheid had a “virtue” (even if this cannot be the correct word), it was honesty. In South Africa, the rulers were so brutally honest that they wrote the racial segregation within the constitutional law. In many countries there is a de facto apartheid about which nobody talks. Before being in South Africa, I was in Central America and I can say that racism and ethnic discrimination were worst in Guatemala than in Africa. In Guatemala, 80% of the population was indigenous and so terrified by the white ruling class and so for me, as a white journalist, it was very difficult to find someone to interview. In South Africa, the victims of apartheid would tell you everything while the apartheid was still going on.

Of course, this answer is only a taste of the full answer to your questions. But what I want to underline is that the fear of the Other is something very complex and deep-rooted in the human species. Whoever dreams that racism can be eradicated in the blink on an eye is delusional. At the same time, we must continue fighting it. Things are improving, have improved in the last century. The fear of the unknown, however, is not going to disappear tomorrow.

What do you think of the nationalist movements that today are taking advantage of this fear? Why are they so powerful now, for example?

We do tend to imagine that our own moment in time is somehow worst and more complicated than what came before. But I am not sure it is true. I do not think there is anything new under the sun. We talk about nationalism today, but what happened a century ago with Mussolini and Hitler? It was evil on a totally different scale of course, and now we experience just a light form of it.

We live in a historical period when nationalists and populists are having success, when their formula works and gets them to the power in Italy, the US, the UK, Brazil (with Bolsonaro), Turkey (with Erdogan), Poland, Hungary… Their strategy is efficient. It consists in saying that there is an enemy (nationalism need an enemy by definition), that it is a very dangerous and scary, that the nationalist/populist leader can save everyone and hence you need to “vote them!”. It is very simple, primitive and very old. It has been used for centuries; they made the same in Assyria five thousand years ago. It is an old story that always sorts out good effects.

Perhaps we now live in an age of uncertainty, of post-ideologies and people are more prone to believe in these redeemers and new messiahs… When I was growing up, there was the Right and the Left. Now everything is much more confused. We also live in Western Europe, a place of post-religion because people have abandoned coral creeds. People are kind of lost, in search of points of reference. And in this atmosphere populist saviours thrive. Again, this is just scratching the surface of what is going on in the world in my opinion.

Do you think this is also a symptom of a European cultural crisis?

It is just like what I was saying earlier. When I was growing up, everything was much clearer: there was Left and Right, the Cold War, the contraposition between capitalism and communism. Now, these clear dichotomies have dissolved and the world has got more disoriented. Now, the old labels are more interchangeable. Meanwhile, other fundamental questions have emerged in the public scene: the climate crisis, the gender question… It is a huge mix of new and old things. And all these changes have been quite sudden and fast: during my life, there has been a radical change in the behaviour towards women, homosexuals, other ethnicities. It has been very fast.

Now, some people have moved at the same speed of these revolutions, but many others have not and today have been resisting to the idea that women are allowed to work outside of the house, that homosexuals have the right to get married and so on. They need to slow down. I belong to the group of those who adapted, my generation has eased the revolutions somehow, but I do recognise that they shocked some people. In this perspective, voting for someone as Trump is a reaction to the excessive speed. It is a way to look back to what is more reassuring. Trump says “Make America Great Again”: it is as if he is promoting a regression to a lost and gone golden age. An age when women stayed home caring for the children, homosexuals were invisible, poor Afro-Americans were not a problem because they could be left in their miserable conditions.

For me it is very easy to adopt a critical standpoint and I am very disapproving of leaders as Trump and Salvini because I do not like them at all… But maybe we need to be like Mandela: we should put ourselves in the others’ shoes. We should do that because this way we stand a better chance to neutralise nationalism, racism, discrimination, the fear of the unknown.

What are then the instruments to achieve the goal?

Fear is the origin of everything and it is originated mostly by ignorance. I do not know about the Italian situation, but in the UK, there is a huge irony in that the majority of the supporters of nationalist and populist parties come from communities where the Islamic or Black population is very small. In London, which is a melting pot of the world, the majority voted against the Brexit. In the last administrative elections, London elected a Major whose parents are Pakistani. There, we know that we can live in peace with Muslims, Africans, Albanians and all the Others. But people who live in small towns on the coast, like in Essex for example, people who have never seen an African or a Muslim person, are terrified by them.
It is a question of ignorance and education, of exposition to what is different. Of telling scared people that there is nothing to fear.

Behind the nationalist movements there seems to be a common strategy and a figure that links them all, Steve Bannon. What do you think of him?

I think he is very intelligent and that he understands very well the business of manipulating people for political purposes. It seems very difficult, but I do not believe so: populists just need to find an enemy of whom people know very little, picture this enemy as the scariest threat ever and declare themselves as the omnipotent defender. It is quite easy.

Has the so-called Left (not only the political one) a responsibility in what is happening?

I go back to Mandela here. He was the great bridge-builder: he set out to conquer people’s fear, to tell them they did not need to be scared.

Maybe the Left has just been playing the same game of antagonisms of its counterpart. For example, in London there is a movement fighting against climate change called Extinction Rebellion: they want to save the Planet, which is a mission that involves the lives of everyone. It does not matter what side you are on, what your religion is, what your convictions are: when we talk about saving the Earth, we talk about everybody of us. But I get the feeling that Extinction Rebellion is very much self-referential. If you go to the protests it organises in Westminster Bridge in London, you can find sings that read “Down with capitalism too”: ok, but shouldn’t you want capitalists to be on your side too? I mean, we are all in this together. Fighting for the health of our planet should be an all-inclusive endeavour.

Movements like these are doing something important, because they are bringing fundamental issues to the public attention. However, they are perhaps failing in their most urgent mission, which is raising everybody’s awareness no matter their political ideas. Hence, if I can blame something to the Left (in which I include my own self) is the insufficient effort to get in the Others’ shoes and to build bridges.

Where is the youth in this scenery?

The youngsters, just like the adults, have many points of view. To say that the young people have a monolithic point of view is ridiculous. They are as they have always been: there is a bit of everything among them. And it is a big mistake to consider that someone like you, who works for the Youth Press Agency, represents them all. In the UK, when Nigel Farage proclaims that he speaks on behalf of the British people… Well, shut up! He ad Trump claim to express the English and the US peoples’ opinion, but it is not true: it is madness, it is false. But it is typical of nationalists and populists, to declare to be the genuine people whereas the others are traitors.

What the youngsters should and should do, individually or in groups, is to remind themselves of the human tendency to act seeking first one’s own satisfaction and then means of communication with the others. This is because of vanity. The Bible, in the Ecclesiastes, reads that everything is vanity. To change the world, it is necessary fighting against vanity. It is necessary to be honest with oneself and to investigate one’s own reasons. This is a central question, because vanity is so strong in the human being.

Talking about Mandela means to keep his memory, his memory and his example alive. How much important is the memory of the past for the future?

Terribly important. Sadly, human history demonstrates that people do not learn from the past and repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Today’s nationalist movements are some sort of repetition of the horrors of the last century. Naturally, it is all in perspective: what happens nowadays is not remotely as wrong and dangerous as what happened in the 1940s.
Anyway, there seems to be some syndrome of ignorance or forgetfulness… Think about South Africa today: there are many people, often young people, who are very critic of Mandela. They say that he did not do enough to tackle the economic injustice of the post-apartheid democracy, that he should have taken land and money form the whites. It is possible to say so, but the circumstances in which Mandela had to work must be considered: if twenty-five years ago Mandela had acted as they suggest, he would have caused a terrible civil war. One must look at what is possible and do it. This is politics. Mandela did the best he could.

People who do not contextualise things interpret the present wrongly, make bad decisions and do not learn a thing. Hence, they continue creating create enemies, feeding the fear, giving birth to false saviours… From a certain point of view, it is a desperate situation. And as a leader it is so much simpler to be a warmonger than to be a peacebuilder. It is for this exact reason that bridge-builders are so rare. Mandela was one, Abraham Lincoln was another. It seems there is one of them every century or so!

Personally, what I value are politicians, leaders and movements that try to build bridges and not walls, to look for ways to unite people and not divide them. Maybe this is the criterion to sort of classify the world today: not Left and Right, not Marxism and Capitalism, but peacebuilders and wall-builders.

What do you like of Mandela to be remembered?

Mandela thought that being born black or white, rich or poor, Italian or Ethiopian is mere fortuity. He believed that, because of the conditions in which people grew up, they develop certain prejudices and political visions. Understanding this absolute fortuity is central because it leads to the understanding of humanity and of all its weaknesses. And if one can do this, he/she would be able to forgive and to respect the others. To find and to fortify the similarities among everybody. And I think that what people have in common is so much more and so much stronger than what divides them.
Mandela knew this. Where there were differences, he tried to build connections, mutual respect, bridges to communicate, share and live peacefully.

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