You must unlearn things before scars of division can be removed

While apartheid’s physical walls may have crumbled, the deeply sown seeds of distrust still poison our society.

We pride ourselves on being the rainbow nation, but how brightly can that rainbow shine when suspicion clouds our relationships?

While apartheid’s physical walls may have crumbled, the deeply sown seeds of distrust still poison our society.

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We move as strangers among each other, divided by race, language, sexual orientation and more – a chilling testament to the enduring legacy of a system designed to keep us apart.

This suspicion festers, fuelled by harmful prejudices against those different from us.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s 2023 SA Reconciliation Barometer Report and the Indlulamithi Scenarios expose the extent of this crisis: 66% of South Africans struggle to trust each other.

Without a concerted effort to combat this inherited distrust, we risk a South Africa forever scarred by divisions.

SA cannot achieve genuine social cohesion, a true sense of belonging and trust across diverse groups, without addressing the root of existing tensions.

Unlearning is a deliberate choice, not about erasing and forgetting our past, but about refusing to remain shackled to its most harmful elements.

It means proactively identifying and discarding prejudices, judgments, and outdated habits that perpetuate division.

We must recognise that systems designed to “keep us in our place” not only harm individuals but also hold back the entire nation’s progress.

This work is especially important in South Africa, where historical injustices have caused profound wounds. Unlearning requires critically examining norms that underpinned those systems of segregation and discrimination.

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It demands reassessing how history continues to shape beliefs and attitudes, while re-educating ourselves about the lived experiences of others.

By taking part in this process, South Africans can fight against ideas that divide them and replace them with ones that promote understanding, compassion, and a shared commitment to justice.

A Western professor sought wisdom from the legendary Zen master Nanin. But his overflowing enthusiasm was soon met with silence as Nanin continuously poured tea into his cup, long after it had reached its limit.

Unable to contain himself, the professor cried, “The cup is overflowing, no more can fit!”

Nan-in replied: “Like this cup, you are so full of your own opinions and preconceived notions that there’s no room for truly absorbing new insights. How can I show you the path unless you first empty your cup?”

Like the professor, our minds, if saturated with harmful assumptions, block us from new perspectives and adaptability.

True national rejuvenation demands the shared strength that comes from seeing a stake in each other’s well-being.

This interconnectedness begins with the recognition that, like the professor, we must open our minds and shed those biases limiting our progress.

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Each of us must be agents of unlearning, but the youth bear a special responsibility.

Start with an honest inventory: is my discomfort with difference truly justified, or does it come from a place of unfamiliarity or inherited biases?

Step outside your comfort zone, seek experiences and narratives that challenge your world view.

It’s not just about lofty ideas; this is about being brave enough to confront your own potential flaws and make a change.

Unlearning dismantles the barriers that strangle South Africa’s potential. The youth can drive lasting change; your generation shapes it. With every conscious act of unlearning, you shift the narrative.

As activist Richard Rohr wrote: “Transformation is often more about unlearning than it is about learning.”

Your choice is clear: remain prisoners of prejudice, or lead a vibrant, united SA into the future.

True cohesion awaits when the youth champion this cause and build a nation where their efforts reshape the future.

• Çetin is director of Turquoise Harmony Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering peace, understanding and tolerance among diverse cultures and faiths. He is also a national social cohesion advocate appointed by the department of sport, arts and culture.

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