Sheer goodness is stirring

2009-02-26 00:00

The storm that hit the Pietermaritzburg area on the evening of January 3 this year brought us both pain and hope. The pain came from the damage. The hope came from some memorable experiences of the goodness of others, most of them total strangers.

Like so many others, we were hard hit. A medium-sized branch, torn by the furious wind from a massive nearby tree, hit our roof, cracked a set of tiles, tore the plastic sheeting and turned our spare room into a shower room as the lashing rain poured through.

Fearful that the roof was about to be lifted off or that windows would be shattered, sending glass flying inward, we took refuge in the passage, armed with torches and cellphones. The crack and crash of falling trees punctuated the sound of the howling wind and rain. Then the power supply failed.

Dawn found the neighbourhood strangely quiet under leaden skies. The scene was scarcely believable, with masses of plant debris dumped by the manic energy of the storm covering the lawns and the roof.

Our access to the street was partly blocked by fallen branches. The street itself was reduced to less than a single car’s width by fallen trees. The gorgeous grove of mature haleria trees near our entrance was badly hit. Saddest of all, an old oak outside our boundary had fallen, its massive trunk snapped at shoulder height.

It was in this scene that the sheer goodness of others made itself felt so memorably. A friendly builder had left me a small pile of roof tiles some years ago, making it possible for me to replace the smashed ones on our roof. That done, we headed off to see if we could clear the road and our own entrance drive of at least the smaller branches blocking them. With no power, an electric chain saw is quite useless, so hand saws and long-arm pruning shears had to suffice. As the early morning advanced, cars began to pass, giving us the next demonstration of ordinary goodness, in the form of friendly greetings, offers of help, words of thanks and exchanges of news about the storm damage.

Best of all was the older passing motorist who saw us battling away with hand tools and who resolved to help us clear the branches. Back he came with his petrol chain saw a short while later, to find that we had finished the lesser of the two street-side jobs and were about to start the second and much larger one. Caused by the shearing off of massive branches from a mature liquid amber tree, the fallen timber blocked more than half the road. Here too, all the damage was from trees outside our property.

So it was that this kindly stranger ripped his chain saw to life again and again, working his way steadily into the tangle of branches, leaving to us the easy and grateful role of dragging the cuts aside to clear the road. The roar of a chain saw isn’t exactly music, but to our ears that morning it surely was.

Another storm is brewing in our land, a political and financial storm whipped up by the deadly energies of greed, lust for power, arrogance, nepotism and corruption. As we see the clouds darkening and feel the wind rising, we need to be afraid, just as my wife and I were when we feared that the storm of January 3 might leave us without a roof. Such fears are justified. But so is hope, because all around us there is a treasury of ordinary goodness, sheer goodness and I for one sense that it is stirring. It too can clear away the debris — the debris, this time, of moral collapse in the halls of power, both political and financial.

• Martin Prozesky is an independent applied ethics consultant and Emeritus Professor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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