A few hours ago I read an extraordinary article on News 24, ‘Coligny: The shape of things to come?’ by Rian Malan. It was extraordinary for many reasons: you don’t always get ‘in depth’ reporting on News 24, but Mr Malan’s article took us right back to the beginning; it was clearly well-researched, and while the author’s point of view came through, right enough, as far as I could see it presented a well balanced picture of what is going on, and that picture is pretty terrible.
Now let me introduce myself as briefly as possible. I am white, born in the UK, visited/lived in a few different European countries after I was about 22 years old and finally came to South Africa as a church worker in January 1986. The first thing I did was learn isiZulu in Elandskop, KZN. In 1992 I left the church, at least partly because I felt the churches were doing good work but more could and should be done. I joined Diakonia (Durban) as a peace monitor at the beginning of 1993; my life had been interesting up to that point but then it got really interesting! I took my job as a monitor/mediator very seriously, always trying to hold the middle ground in some of the most violent places in KZN – Bhambayi, Inanda springs to mind, as well as Ndwedwe and a lesser known place called Njobokazi near Mpumulanga township, where I saw Meshack Hadebe and Sipho Mlaba in action. I could tell you some stories…but I won’t. After a while, towards the end of 1995, I opted for teaching. I am now a Math teacher at high school looking forward to retiring in a year or so.
The point is, I did my bit to help usher in a democratic South Africa. I am one of the unsung heroes; I risked my life more times than I care to remember, especially during the Diakonia years; I will never forget the moment I put my mark on a ballot paper in rural Ndwedwe. Of course, there are tens of thousands of people like me who did what they did then and settled back into an ‘ordinary life’ filled with hope.
How things have changed over the last 23 years. The first five were wonderful, of course, though even then I noticed a certain parting of the ways between politicians and civil society – Gun Free South Africa sputtered to a halt because Churches and politicians were somehow at odds about how to proceed. A question of who got the kudos I suppose? Madiba clearly groomed his successor, Mr Thabo Mbeki, but I haven’t noticed much ‘grooming’ since then. Then came Mangaung…and here we are now.
(Don’t ask me about being a Math teacher in a high school…surely there are other commentators who’ve made that situation clear enough? If you want to know more from my point of view, read my book ‘Adopted Country, Adopted Son’ – what happens when a learner is sexually harassed at school.) The main question in my mind is how much worse can things get? And so we get back to Mr Malan and his article about Coligny. As Rian Malan says in his mainly objective and therefore terribly disturbing article, Coligny represents ‘pretty much anywhere’ in SA at the moment.
Is this what I risked my life for during the years at Diakonia? A society so polarized – and misled – that minutes after a magistrate pronounces a judgement based on the evidence before him, houses are burned to the ground? A society where people’s justifiable anger and frustration is callously misdirected to protect an elite? Am I going to burn – perhaps literally – so that unethical leadership can maintain its grip on power? I hope not…I believe not…but for that not to happen, civil society has to become strong again, as strong as we were during the fight against apartheid. We were lucky that Madiba lived so long since his mere presence was enough to forestall the worst excesses, and even in death he shed light on some of the problems – President Zuma has been booed before, remember? Now, we are truly on our own and civil society is our main hope of challenging politicians to work for the good of all South Africans. Yes, there are racist whites, and white people have to do something about that, along with the rest of society; yes, white people have a debt to acknowledge and pay in some way (Helen, please resign; show that you can do what is best for South Africa right now, putting your personal aspirations/ambitions aside…), but for all our sins, we are a part of this country. Rian Malan’s article might not be perfect, but he has shown himself to be an activist for the truth – that is what we need right now, and that is what civil society has to be.
Viva umzabalazo weqiniso, viva!