Let's not consign SA's heroes to the rubbish tip of history

(File, AP)
(File, AP)

INSIDE the archives of South African history in my mind, I’m pulling pieces of paper out of the files:
Jerry Mosololi, 18 when he left South Africa during the chaotic year of 1976. He came back to fight for freedom; the first his mother heard of him in years was when he was arrested in 1982 and charged with high treason. As the pale winter sun pearled the sky on June 9 1983, he was hanged by the neck, a 25-year-old man who believed in the cause…

Into the dustbin of history with you.

Godfrey Xolile Zona spent time on death row as one of the Upington 26. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he said: “…we fought for the whole of South Africa, not Upington, not Paballelo. […] The freedom didn't come from abroad. We fought for this freedom. We were assaulted. We were harassed by the police. The other people didn't feel anything. We, in this country, we suffered all the pain.”

Ah, I am sorry, into the dustbin of history you go…

Rita Ndzanga, trade unionist and activist who was detained and tortured in 1969, was not prepared to abandon the struggle for a just and free society even when her husband Lawrence died in detention in 1977.

Joyce Dipale, a Black Consciousness leader, in solitary confinement for 500 days and subjected to brutal torture during 1976 and 1977...

And then, the people from my own personal archives: the two cousins, both brothers of close friends of mine, who went to jail in 1979 and 1980 rather than be called up to fight for what they believed was an unjust cause…

My own activist cousin, arrested in 1978 (a memory of my aunt’s agitated fingers fretting at and picking apart the filter on her cigarette as she told me the story of week after week of a parent’s acid anxiety, never knowing where he was held or if he was still alive, but going to Caledon Square day in and day out “just so they’ll know someone cares”) …

The heroic women I came to know when I became a member of the Black Sash – I remember one of them describing how she unravelled and knitted up her blanket over and over, to stay sane during 37 solitary days in the Women’s Gaol on Constitution Hill…

And more, so many more, dozens and dozens of resonant names in the files of my memory, all-but-forgotten names that haven’t been assigned streets or buildings or hospitals as aide-mémoires of their heroism.

Must I consign them all to the dustbin, to ashes and dust?

Because that’s what I feel it comes to, now. If what is worth protecting, worth “closing ranks” over, is the ANC – not the semi-mythical ANC so many of us admired, yearned for, secretly committed to when it was danger and death to do so, but this denatured, devalued body that has abandoned values and principles in favour of wealth and power – then the suffering and deaths of all those whose names live on in the archives might as well go onto a rubbish tip, to disintegrate and blow away with the wind.

All of that anguish and courage and loss – it was not given so that a small coterie of people could sit in unassailable positions of power and privilege. I believe that people like Joyce Dipala and Rita Ndzanga and Neil Aggett and Steve Biko did not risk their all to enable some to climb to the top of the heap, while the rest are called on to accept their lot and ‘close ranks’ to protect them, even when their actions do not fulfil the beautiful constitution that embodies the longed-for vision.

Because struggle hero credentials, it turns out, don’t necessarily translate into shared values. Raymond Suttner (who himself sacrificed much for the struggle) mused recently: “While in prison, I assumed that we shared an underlying empathy with the poor. In retrospect, I wonder whether there ever was that feeling […] there were many who bore the name of the ANC and SACP, but who embodied quite different personalities and ethical systems.”

Consider these:

 “I have in my heart an absolute conviction that what I am doing is right…. I stand here in the spirit of the South Africa we have yet to build.” (Philip Wilkinson, conscientious objector)

“It is better to die for an idea that will live, than live for an idea that will die.” (Steve Bantu Biko)

Next year, September, it will be 40 years since Biko died for that idea. Is it still living in the hearts of South Africans? Do we still have the courage to stand for, to fight for, the South Africa men like Wilkinson dreamt of?

Then we must remember that democracy does not happen exclusively in the voting booth; we must remember that power does not reside exclusively in Cabinet and Parliament. We - the 99% - we have power. It was extra-parliamentary power within this country, in civil society, in churches and businesses and schools and organisations, that pushed South Africa to a place of change once before.

We can do it again, if we recognise our power and work together. To those in business, in trade unions, in stokvels, in charitable organisations, in all the manifestations of that slumbering beast called civil society, recognise that we share some fundamentals dreams: for a just, fair, safe society, one not plagued by corruption and inequality and all their concomitant evils.

We can, we must work together to that end. And honour all the forgotten heroes who sacrificed so much for the South Africa we have yet to build.

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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