Beyond the call of duty

2015-03-01 15:00

The idea of a hero or heroine wearing a silly costume, cape billowing behind him or her, belongs in comic books and big-budget Hollywood movies.

Real heroes wear more common uniforms – they are dressed as paramedics, firefighters, nurses, police officers. Or, as is the case with the people who’ve reached into their wallets and doled out cash to the student representative council at Wits University’s One Million One Month campaign, they wear no uniform at all.

They’re ordinary South Africans, some of them students themselves. The campaign helps Wits students left in the lurch by the inept National Student Financial Aid Scheme. When it was officially launched on February 20, R780?000 had already been pledged.

The university’s student newspaper, Vuvuzela, reported that R300?000 had been promised in “pledges, commitments and contributions from NGOs, alumni and members of the Wits community”, and the rest was raised through corporations and donors.

R1?million is a drop in the ocean when you consider the figures Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene spoke about in his budget speech on Wednesday. But to the 100 or so students whose registration fees can be paid through the campaign – securing their place at Wits and setting them on the path to a tertiary education – it’s a fine example of what ordinary South Africans can do.

A lot of attention has been paid, and rightly so, to the heroes who guided us through the terror of apartheid and into a new democratic era. Hector Pieterson. Lillian Ngoyi. Robert Sobukwe. Oliver Tambo. Helen Joseph. Chris Hani. Nelson Mandela.

Their public profiles and the attention they commanded in TV broadcasts, newspaper headlines and at international meetings were critical to smashing us into a brave new era.

But there were plenty of ordinary heroes, too. We won’t ever know their names; we wouldn’t recognise them if they strolled past us in the street. Maybe you are a hero, too. Maybe you’re one of millions of South Africans who don’t simply sit back, fold their arms and insist that only government has a role in making things work. Yes, government can and must do its work – and, frankly, must do it far better than is the case.

Spending on consultants, mismanaged tender processes and billions wasted on projects that never come to fruition cannot be ignored. But we ordinary citizens, devoid of blue-light brigades and bodyguards, can make change. Just ask those 100 new university students who’ve been given what they hardly dared to hope for: a chance.

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