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 Centroper la Pace di Bolzano in collaboration with theCentro Antirazzista Benny Nato and focused on a photographic exposition entitled South Africa and the Italian support againstapartheid. The exposition itself was first exhibited in 2004, on the 10thanniversary of the end of the racial segregation in South Africa.
The aim ofthe whole project is to remind the current Italian society the efforts made by thepast society to fight against all kinds of discrimination - ethnic,economic, political, social, cultural. It is also to encourage everybody tokeep on fighting, especially in a historical moment when the world seems to behaunted by nightmares that tell stories of close-mindedness, exclusion,supremacy, primacy of some human beings over others. Nightmares which whisperthat it is impossible to build means of communication and to share them withthose that are different from us.
And aroundthese themes revolves the dialogue with John Carlin, who had the opportunity tobe a witness of the world and of the work of someone who really tried to changeit for the better.
Thinking about the reason you are in Bolzano Iwas wondering how to define apartheid.I tried with "the hatred and disgust of the Other that become a system ofinstitutionalised discrimination". But I would like your opinion and I wouldalso like to know if you can tell what the origin of apartheid is, maybeconsidering the present situation of Europe.
It is avery complicated question. You use the word hatred,but I would rather prefer fear... Fearof the unknown that might or might not generate disgust. Because the fearof what is not usual has always been the origin of hate. We are talking aboutsomething very profound in humans. The South-African fear, translated into theapartheid, was shown and narrated in a very simple way as if it were a childrenparable: all was clear, there was black and there was white and there was the cleardifference between them.
However,racism is not only South-African: it is universal. The first humanbeings moved from Africa northwards and arrived in what is now called theMiddle East. Five thousand years later, other human beings moved from Africatowards the same territories and there they were rejected because considereddifferent. 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 peopleare racist as well and their targets could be other black people. It happens inAfrica. I know Rwanda very well and I can say with certainty that the Tutsis andthe Hutus are very similar: the 1994 genocide, because of which thousands andthousands of Hutus died at the hands of Tutsis, is clear example of racism.
And what is the situation in South Africatoday? Which forms has racism taken?
Today thereis still racism in South Africa. There is the one of the whites against the blacksand this is an old story... The thing is that, since South Africa became ademocracy, the country has been the destination of many African migrants lookingfor better economic conditions - much like what Mexicans are doing when crossingthe US border. These migrants come from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Congo, Sudan,Zambia, everywhere. And most of them are treated with extreme racism, withimpressing 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, Ithink it is important to consider racism within the universal human contextand not to define it only as the behaviour of us rich white people against thepoor black others. It is an all-pervading phenomenon, transversal to all placesand times. It is in South America, Asia... The exceptionality of South Africa wasthat racism was obvious, clear. If the apartheid had a "virtue" (even if this cannotbe the correct word), it was honesty. In South Africa, the rulers were sobrutally honest that they wrote the racial segregation within the constitutionallaw. In many countries there is a defacto apartheid about which nobody talks. Before being in South Africa,I was in Central America and I can say that racism and ethnic discriminationwere worst in Guatemala than in Africa. In Guatemala, 80% of the population wasindigenous and so terrified by the white ruling class and so for me, as a whitejournalist, it was very difficult to find someone to interview. In SouthAfrica, the victims of apartheid would tell you everything while the apartheid wasstill going on.
Of course,this answer is only a taste of the full answer to your questions. But what Iwant to underline is that the fear of the Other is something very complex anddeep-rooted in the human species. Whoever dreams that racism can be eradicatedin the blink on an eye is delusional. At the same time, we must continuefighting it. Things are improving, have improved in the last century. The fearof the unknown, however, is not going to disappear tomorrow.
What do you think of the nationalist movementsthat today are taking advantage of this fear? Why are they so powerful now, forexample?
We do tendto imagine that our own moment in time is somehow worst and more complicated thanwhat came before. But I am not sure it is true. I do not think there isanything new under the sun. We talk about nationalism today, but what happeneda century ago with Mussolini and Hitler? It was evil on a totally differentscale of course, and now we experience just a light form of it.
We live ina historical period when nationalists and populists are having success, whentheir formula works and gets them to the power in Italy, the US, the UK,Brazil (with Bolsonaro), Turkey (with Erdogan), Poland, Hungary... Their strategyis efficient. It consists in saying that there is an enemy (nationalism need anenemy by definition), that it is a very dangerous and scary, that thenationalist/populist leader can save everyone and hence you need to "votethem!". 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 thatalways sorts out good effects.
Perhaps wenow live in an age of uncertainty, of post-ideologies and people aremore prone to believe in these redeemers and new messiahs... When I was growingup, there was the Right and the Left. Now everything is much more confused. Wealso live in Western Europe, a place of post-religion because people haveabandoned coral creeds. People are kind of lost, in search of points ofreference. And in this atmosphere populist saviours thrive. Again, this is justscratching the surface of what is going on in the world in my opinion.
Do you think this is also a symptom of aEuropean cultural crisis?
It is justlike what I was saying earlier. When I was growing up, everything was muchclearer: there was Left and Right, the Cold War, the contraposition betweencapitalism and communism. Now, these clear dichotomies have dissolved and theworld has got more disoriented. Now, the old labels are more interchangeable. Meanwhile,other fundamental questions have emerged in the public scene: the climatecrisis, the gender question... It is a huge mix of new and old things. And allthese changes have been quite sudden and fast: during my life, there has been aradical change in the behaviour towards women, homosexuals, other ethnicities.It has been very fast.
Now, somepeople have moved at the same speed of these revolutions, but many others havenot and today have been resisting to the idea that women are allowed to workoutside 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, mygeneration has eased the revolutions somehow, but I do recognise that theyshocked some people. In this perspective, voting for someone as Trump is a reactionto the excessive speed. It is a way to look back to what is morereassuring. Trump says "Make America Great Again":it is as if he is promoting a regression to a lost and gone golden age. An agewhen women stayed home caring for the children, homosexuals were invisible,poor Afro-Americans were not a problem because they could be left in theirmiserable conditions.
For me itis very easy to adopt a critical standpoint and I am very disapproving ofleaders as Trump and Salvini because I do not like them at all... But maybe weneed to be like Mandela: we should put ourselves in the othersâ€™ shoes.We should do that because this way we stand a better chance to neutralisenationalism, racism, discrimination, the fear of the unknown.
What are then the instruments to achieve thegoal?
Fear is theorigin of everything and it is originated mostly by ignorance. I do not knowabout the Italian situation, but in the UK, there is a huge irony in that themajority of the supporters of nationalist and populist parties come fromcommunities 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. Inthe last administrative elections, London elected a Major whose parents arePakistani. 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 Muslimperson, are terrified by them.
It is a questionof ignorance and education, of exposition to what is different. Of tellingscared people that there is nothing to fear.
Behind the nationalist movements there seems tobe a common strategy and a figure that links them all, Steve Bannon. What doyou think of him?
I think heis very intelligent and that he understands very well the business of manipulatingpeople 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, picturethis enemy as the scariest threat ever and declare themselves as the omnipotentdefender. It is quite easy.
Has the so-called Left (not only the politicalone) a responsibility in what is happening?
I go backto Mandela here. He was the great bridge-builder: he set out to conquerpeopleâ€™s fear, to tell them they did not need to be scared.
Maybe theLeft has just been playing the same game of antagonisms of itscounterpart. For example, in London there is a movement fighting againstclimate change called ExtinctionRebellion: they want to save the Planet, which is a mission that involvesthe lives of everyone. It does not matter what side you are on, what yourreligion is, what your convictions are: when we talk about saving the Earth, wetalk about everybody of us. But I get the feeling that Extinction Rebellion is very much self-referential. If you go tothe protests it organises in Westminster Bridge in London, you can find singsthat read "Down with capitalism too": ok, but shouldnâ€™t you want capitalists tobe on your side too? I mean, we are all in this together. Fighting for thehealth of our planet should be an all-inclusive endeavour.
Movementslike these are doing something important, because they are bringing fundamentalissues to the public attention. However, they are perhaps failing in their mosturgent mission, which is raising everybodyâ€™s awareness no matter theirpolitical ideas. Hence, if I can blame something to the Left (in which Iinclude my own self) is the insufficient effort to get in the Othersâ€™ shoes andto build bridges.
Where isthe youth in this scenery?
The youngsters,just like the adults, have many points of view. To say that the young peoplehave a monolithic point of view is ridiculous. They are as they have alwaysbeen: there is a bit of everything among them. And it is a big mistake toconsider that someone like you, who works for the Youth Press Agency,represents them all. In the UK, when Nigel Farage proclaims that he speaks onbehalf of the British people... Well, shut up! He ad Trump claim to express the Englishand the US peoplesâ€™ 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 genuinepeople whereas the others are traitors.
What theyoungsters should and should do, individually or in groups, is to remindthemselves of the human tendency to act seeking first oneâ€™s own satisfactionand then means of communication with the others. This is because of vanity.The Bible, in the Ecclesiastes, reads that everything is vanity. To change theworld, it is necessary fighting against vanity. It is necessary to be honestwith oneself and to investigate oneâ€™s own reasons. This is a centralquestion, because vanity is so strong in the human being.
Talkingabout Mandela means to keep his memory, his memory and his example alive. Howmuch important is the memory of the past for the future?
Terriblyimportant. Sadly, human history demonstrates that people do not learn from thepast and repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Todayâ€™s nationalistmovements 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 wrongand dangerous as what happened in the 1940s.
Anyway,there seems to be some syndrome of ignorance or forgetfulness... Thinkabout South Africa today: there are many people, often young people, who arevery critic of Mandela. They say that he did not do enough to tackle theeconomic injustice of the post-apartheid democracy, that he should have takenland and money form the whites. It is possible to say so, but the circumstancesin which Mandela had to work must be considered: if twenty-five years agoMandela 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 thebest he could.
People whodo not contextualise things interpret the present wrongly, make bad decisionsand do not learn a thing. Hence, they continue creating create enemies, feedingthe fear, giving birth to false saviours... From a certain point of view, it is adesperate situation. And as a leader it is so much simpler to be a warmongerthan to be a peacebuilder. It is for this exact reason that bridge-builders areso rare. Mandela was one, Abraham Lincoln was another. It seems there is one ofthem every century or so!
Personally,what I value are politicians, leaders and movements that try to build bridgesand not walls, to look for ways to unite people and not divide them. Maybe thisis the criterion to sort of classify the world today: not Left and Right, notMarxism and Capitalism, but peacebuilders and wall-builders.
What doyou like of Mandela to be remembered?
Mandelathought that being born black or white, rich or poor, Italian or Ethiopian ismere fortuity. He believed that, because of the conditions in which people grewup, they develop certain prejudices and political visions. Understanding thisabsolute fortuity is central because it leads to the understanding of humanityand of all its weaknesses. And if one can do this, he/she would be able toforgive and to respect the others. To find and to fortify the similaritiesamong everybody. And I think that what people have in common is so much moreand so much stronger than what divides them.
Mandelaknew this. Where there were differences, he tried to build connections, mutualrespect, bridges to communicate, share and live peacefully.
Photography by Marianna Montagnana