Raksha Singh Semnarayan has been in the legal fraternity since the dawn of a democratic South Africa. As a candidate attorney, she was in the room as the country’s constitution was being drafted, and her early work saw her helping trade unions take their place in a constitutional democracy.
Her career and activism have always dovetailed, which is why when South African experienced unprecedented looting and unrest last month, Singh Semnarayan used her platform as Director of Outreach for South Africa International Commission for Human Rights and Religious Freedom to remind the country of the lodestar of our liberal democracy, writing the essay, ‘South Africa in Political Turmoil Leading to Targeted Mass Killings.’
We’ve experienced a winter of discontent – a devastating spike of Covid-19 infections and the days of looting and violence in which 300 people were killed. How have you protected your mental health during this time?
Thanks for the opportunity to share on this platform. Expressing provides a platform for creating perspective and healing.
I have lots of family including siblings and elderly parents in Durban. Hearing my mom continuously saying the gunshots are loud and not stopping and the buildings are still burning for three days made me scared and feel helpless. Many friends and relatives were also patrolling to protect their homes and I feared for their safety. Some of my relatives were evacuated at 1am and my family were helping the elderly to leave an area called Duffs Road. Many people had nowhere to go. I was receiving continuous live feedback on family and other chats.
My coping mechanism generally is to make sense of a situation and develop a solution. Being an activist against injustice and having lived the journey of reconciliation, I had assumed that the people of South Africa had developed tolerance, and I never expected this level of violence and anger for South Africans to turn against each other. Not being able to make sense of what was happening made me sad and frustrated. It felt like decades of reconciliation and healing were lost. I experienced even more anger when I saw schools and clinics that were built by communities were burnt to ashes.
Throughout all of this the failure and delays by the army and police to provide protection contributed to my sense of helplessness and confusion in trying to understand the rationale for the violence or who was really responsible for these acts of violence.
I wished that this was a dream but it was not. I then for the first time accepted that the complexity of the situation could not be rationalised. This acceptance brought me some relief. My duty was to ensure that the persons who were under my care were safe and to assist in providing food relief to the destitute whose sufferings increased ten fold after the incidents, where I could.
Seeing persons you know dying daily from Covid as well as a failed heath system was one of the worst episodes for me personally and for South Africa. I had to once again remind myself that not all things are within my control. This seems obvious but for some of us who feel that there is a solution to be implemented to every crisis, this was a pretty difficult acceptance. I was reminded of the power of the Serenity Prayer. I grew up as a child of Alcoholics Anonymous and this prayer is used in AA: ‘God Grant me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.’
In this difficult acceptance, I found my peace. Once again helping communities with food where it was needed during Covid provided provided me with some fulfilment.
You’re from Durban, and even though you were physically distanced from the crisis, you were involved in on-the-ground efforts to help feed communities. But that also meant you were barely sleeping during this already emotionally exhausting time. What advice do you have for our community who want to help, but feel paralysed by the vast need in our society, while also keeping their work and home lives together?
The feeling of helplessness can be frustrating but also empowering. My advice is that each one of us can make a difference in some way. We need to be aware of credible organisations and support these financially or in any way that we can. We can reach out to those who are affected or going through a hard time to give them hope and encouragement. Contacting a relative who lives in an affected area and checking on them is a simple but powerful gesture.
When we see racist propaganda in response to what is happening, we have a duty to speak up against it. We need to remind people of upholding progressive values that bring people together. We need to be aware of the people in our own communities and help where we can. Our glass walls have made us forget of the societies that we are part of. There is also a need to create a feeling of empowerment amongst people where the dependence on government lessens.
Cocooning describes a moment of change that is also uncomfortable and vulnerable. You wrote about this moment in South African politics as a chance to return to the country’s constitutional values. How do we do that?
In my article I spoke of how a beautiful rose garden that exists in a desert is useless if the people are hungry and thirsty and there is no food or water. Similarly there needs to be an acceptance that the prize in the fight for democracy was the Constitution. A right to life, as enshrined in the Constitution, for example, becomes meaningless when a vast majority of people are hungry and unemployed and when there is no health care that can be accessed for hours.
There needs to be acceptance then that the Constitutional Rights are just limited to words in an Act and there has been a grave failure to give effect to these Human Rights. Once there is this acceptance then we can create solutions to address the failures and create solutions that will uplift the lives of South Africans. Currently there is a denial of this.
You’ve experienced upheaval—nationally and personally. How do you manage transition, the positive and negative, the unexpected and the planned, and still stay grounded?
One needs to have unwavering principles and stick to them despite the situation. My values are that of promoting non racism, non sexism, equality and justice. In the midst of chaos I use these principles to guide me.
One should never compromise one’s values. I also have an inner faith, and strength and we must know that even the worst situations and the brutal times will pass. The hardest experiences have provided me with the greatest lessons and growth. I remind myself constantly to search for the lessons and to implement them.
You have two teenage children, and your eldest was in eSwatini when the protests ignited there. How do you talk to your children about the chaos in the world today, but also manage their anxiety and help them remain positive about the future.
It is firstly important for youth to understand what are the basic values that humanity needs to live by. This should not be considered as obvious knowledge. It is further important to expose children to great thought leaders of transformation and change. Our youth need to understand that where there is inequality and injustice, people will attempt to change this. This process may cause instability and in these incidents, they need to take positions based on progressive values.
Youth also need to accept that certain situations are not within their ambit of control but standing up for righteousness and progressive principles is their duty. They also must show compassion and assist where they can. I constantly tell my children to become adults that can make humanity a better place and in their contributions the worlds that is part of their existence can become a better world. Youth however learn more from examples of adults in their space than from examples in textbooks.
A powerful philosophy for youth to learn is that there are no perfect leaders, parents, governments or world but in this imperfection we still try to find joys in the “small” things in life like helping others and appreciating art and nature and finding one’s true purpose in a chaotic world. In this they will find an inner joy that can never be destroyed.