I was thrilled to be asked to chair a session at HAICU’s (UCT’s HIV/AIDS, Inclusivity and Change Unit, if you didn’t know) colloquium on Reconciliation, Intergenerational Trauma and Higher Education last week. I felt like the programme had been planned especially for me since it focussed on issues that occupy my mind a lot and spoke to my identities as the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, a post-Apartheid South African and a higher education scholar. You can find out more about the colloquium here.
During the day we were exposed to stories about the Nazi Holocaust, about the legacy of trauma and eventual forgiveness. We heard about how Rwandans grappled to come to terms with the 1994 genocide and about apartheid’s effect on the South Africa of today. My take-home from the day was that all South Africans – whether perpetrators, victims or bystanders of/to apartheid – are still trying to find ways to manage the trauma of that time, and that dialogue is such an important part of this process.
I had an opportunity to reflect on this in class last week. I always encourage my students to call my “Gabi”. In part, I think this was inspired by my father who, even when he was Dean of a university faculty, insisted that his students call him by his first name. I see it as a way to get the students to relate to me less as a teacher and more as a facilitator – a co-creator of learning in the classroom.
However, in one of my classes I have a black student who insists on calling me “ma’am”. This makes me feel old, like when little Afrikaans kids call me “tannie” (auntie in Afrikaans), so I’ve tried to push him to call me by my name. However, on Thursday, he explained to me that he comes from a culture that places a lot of respect on elders and that he’d feel uncomfortable calling me “Gabi”.
I was glad he’d been brave enough to explain this to me because it reinforced what I’d learnt at the colloquium. In a country as diverse as South Africa we need to listen to each other and consider different experiences and cultures in the way we relate to one another. I’ll definitely get off this guy’s case from now on, although I’m still not sure I can stomach being a “tannie” quite yet.