‘With everything on a knife-edge, little things can make a difference’

2008-03-08 00:00

THE images emanating from Bloemfontein arouse a sense of hopelessness.

It can hardly be seen as an isolated deed — after all, videos are made to be seen by others. There has to be oxygen for this message of hate — those who make videos do so in the knowledge that somewhere they will have a receptive audience.

These events represent an extreme, but in various communities in South Africa (often for conflicting reasons) a kind of hopelessness reigns that results in criminal behaviour — flames that can easily become runaway fires if there is enough oxygen.

How can people who have to work out their futures in this country escape from that hopelessness?

•First, you need to ensure that you are useful, that you are relevant and are making a contribution to the country’s future. If possible, that you are indispensable. Don’t depend on grace to ensure your survival. The question is, what is the added value of your profession, of the work you do, of your part in society, of the fact that you’re here?

•Then, your skin should not be too thin. Life isn’t always fair, and the sooner you see that that is the way it is, the better. Gigantic forces are at work in the formation and transformation of our society and the chances are good that you will get caught up somewhere in that process, even if it isn’t necessarily aimed at you personally.

If, for example, you don’t immediately get the job you want because of affirmative action, don’t go and blow up the Union Buildings.

But more than that: don’t develop a victim mentality. If your major response is to complain, then others, and you yourself, will start believing it’s simply your lot in life to come second.

•The third point is the most difficult one, and also the most important: the biggest challenge is, despite all of the above, and all evidence to the contrary, to retain the conviction that life, and our society, can be fair, and that you can do something to make it that way. Things don’t have to be the way they are.

Everyone will have his or her own response to the images from Bloemfontein. Mine was an overwhelming urge to do something very concrete to get the sick taste out of my mouth.

In the run-up to the 1994 elections, I had the opportunity to get involved with the southern African Student Volunteers’ Organisation (Sasvo).

First we did voter education. Later, in groups that included students from all the universities in the country, we spent time during vacations rebuilding schools, clinics and other community structures in the rural areas and in townships.

Sasvo expanded to include all the provinces in South Africa and also most of the other Southern African countries, and students from those countries were brought to South Africa to work here.

A total of about 9 000 students — mostly black, but also a good number of whites — worked on Sasvo projects over a period of about 12 years. Sasvo came to an end when most of us became involved in our “other” careers and Sasvo became too big to be kept going.

I recall the feeling, at the end of a long day’s physical labour, of washing yourself at a tap at the school where you’d been working. Of sitting around a fire in the evenings, cooking your food and chatting, and being too tired for any nonsense. Young people from all backgrounds who felt they were mixing their sweat with the earth and with one another’s. And to be thinking you’re doing it because it is the most relevant, exciting and satisfying thing you could possibly be doing.

I’m going to revive Sasvo. To get this bad taste out of my mouth. To revive my hope that, despite everything, we can make something special of this country. To take it further and adapt a tradition in which the ideas of “help one another” and “let’s make a plan” apply.

It may happen that the country does not change.

But where everything is balanced on a knife-edge and can go either way, little things can make the difference.

What are you going to do?

•Professor Christof Heyns is dean of the law faculty at the University of Pretoria.

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