Everyone jump on

2009-09-21 00:00

If I were to describe my weekend I would say it was about bunnychows, the bishop, ballroom dancing and Steve Biko. There was more; I met some amazing young people and discovered a peaceful revolution taking place right under our noses.

Let me unravel all this heady stuff before you suspect me of smoking a peace pipe.

On Saturday, Durban-based organisation the Umtapo Centre held its 13th Steve Biko International Peace Awards. The keynote speaker was Anglican Bishop Rubin Phillip, a close friend of the late Steve Biko.

Phillip recalled his days as a member of the South African Student Organisation (Sasa) and an incident he has never forgotten.

“Steve used to gather us younger members together and take us through newspapers. He said we had to read the papers critically to understand the mind of the oppressor.”

The bishop went on to explain that after one long session of analysis and discussion, the group went off to the city centre for bunny chows and sat on the beach enjoying Durban’s special cuisine. They were soon set upon by the local constabulary who wanted to know who gave them permission to sit at the “whites only” beach.

They had to listen to this tirade from one of the policemen and when he had finished, Biko asked him: “Excuse me sir do you know the name of that ocean?”

The policeman had to go through his list of oceans from the Atlantic to Pacific, before finally settling on Indian.

Biko pointed to Phillip (the Indian oke in the group) and said: “You see this chap here, he gave me permission to be on the beach”.

The story, well told by the bishop, had the gathering in stitches. It captured that indomitable spirit of Biko.

Phillip’s anecdote sent me on my own reverie.

I was in Grahams­town in the Eastern Cape where Biko’s organisation, the Black People’s Convention, had set up black community programmes that ran self-help projects.

These were aimed at instilling a sense of self-worth and confidence in black people. At the church hall near where I lived there were literacy classes, health education programmes, poetry, drama groups, art classes and ballroom dancing.

I never did learn how to dance, but I learnt how to read and dissect the news, I learnt critical thinking and was exposed to great books There were discussions on the nature of oppression, decolonising the mind, understanding humanity. We were never taught to hate or despise people, but to embrace humanity.

Phillip recalled Biko’s words that the one who oppresses is also oppressed. According to the bishop, there is a need once more to hold up Biko’s vision to young people. Our quest for a true, free and full humanity is needed now more than ever, he said.

A beaming Professor Ben Khoapa, chairman of the Umtapo Board, was able to respond that Biko’s vision was not lost and that there are now a host of young people ready to take up the mantle. “It is time we dinosaurs retired,” he said.

It turns out that quietly in the background and with no fanfare, the Umtapo Centre has been working on peace and anti-racisim projects.

The organisation has established over 70 peace clubs in schools and organisations around the country.

“There are clubs from Polokwane to Port Elizabeth and I even learnt of one in Qongqotha in the Eastern Cape, a place I never believed existed,” said Khoapa.

It was actually meeting young members of these peace clubs that truly convinced me that, yes, indeed there has been a quiet revolution carrying on right under our noses. A presentation by young students of Southlands Secondary School highlighted the impossibility of attaining peace if there is no respect for one another and for mother earth. A young student boldly read her poem entitled “modern man” apologising if she was going to offend anyone, but she was going to express her views anyway. The poem was on crass materialism and the macho images young guys aspire to.

There was an impressive young man, Lawrence Monyahi, who was a member of peace clubs from primary to high school. He is now a student at Johannesburg University and a member of the SRC. He is using the lessons he learnt in his peace clubs on anti-racism, respect and critical reflection within the organisations that he currently belongs to.

I left Durban on Saturday with an uncanny sense that Biko’s words may just turn out to be prophetic. He once said, “In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift — a more human face.”

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