Melanie Verwoerd | A birthday during lockdown, and a few resolutions too

The ANC leadership is in full agreement with the decision to extend the lockdown until 30 April.
The ANC leadership is in full agreement with the decision to extend the lockdown until 30 April.
Sandile Ndlovu, Gallo Images

I still want to enjoy chocolate dessert and good coffee with friends. But, I also want to show up when it comes to the bigger challenges facing humanity and our natural world, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

It’s my birthday on Saturday. 

I thought I should mention it, so my kids don’t forget. (They know what I’m talking about!).

Actually, it feels a little indulgent to have a birthday under the current conditions. Not that I chose the date of course, but still.

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I have a very close friend in Ireland, who I used to spend my birthdays with when I lived there. Brid has this belief that everyone on their birthday should do a little of what they want their year ahead to look like. 

So for many years I have done that. I would eat my favourite dessert at a restaurant (to affirm that this year I will eat healthily – okay that is a bit messed up but I knew what it meant), do a bit of exercise (to go with the good eating), have good coffee with a friend (because everyone needs good coffee and ditto re friend), spend some time with my  kids (they remain my best friends), buy myself something nice (to affirm that I need to make money) and take a walk in nature with my dogs (to remind myself to… well, walk more in nature with my dogs).

Clearly, under the current circumstances, I can’t do any of the things that I have been doing in previous years, so in anticipation of this year’s birthday, I have been thinking a lot about what I want my coming year to look like.

This is what I have come up with:

Firstly, I want to be more thankful. Not just the write-in-my-diary type of thankfulness. I also want to say thank you. So let me start today. I want to say thank you to all the cashiers and staff at my local Spar in Vredehoek, who so bravely keep on serving us, even though I can see the fear in their eyes above the masks. Thank you to the council workers who still collect my bin every week. Thank you to Michaela Adonis and her team from the Cape Town City Council, who came to fix a water leak late at night in howling wind. Thank you to Hadley Cogill from Active Plumbers, who spent hours yesterday fixing my leaking toilet. Thank you also to all the medics, hospital cleaners, police and other essential personnel, who ensure that our lives can still go on.

A big thank you to our President. No one can ever train for circumstances like these. Only the selected few are born brave and wise enough to take the excruciatingly difficult decisions that this epidemic has insisted you do. Madiba once said to me that the sign of a true leader is that 10% of the time, when you really have to take the difficult decisions, often many don’t agree with you. Mr. President, never again will anybody be able to doubt your strength, decisiveness and true leadership.

Secondly, this year I want to imagine a new future. To quote Obama, I want the audacity to hope that radical change is possible; that this epidemic will be a wake-up call. I want to imagine a new life for myself where I engage with the big questions and not waste time with the petty seductions of life. I’m not hundred percent sure what practical changes that will require of my life yet, but I know that having a hard look at all the things that drive me will be the start.

I know that I also want to ask what a new future might look like for our globe and how we get there. It seems clear to me that this virus has shown that we can’t just snap back into business as usual when this is all over and that we have to create a more caring and egalitarian world. It has also shown that, under its fearful pressure, humankind has made brave choices about our economic priorities that have been needed for decades, and made them virtually overnight.  I want to be part of the growing number of people who are asking: “If we can suddenly be a more caring, compassionate and just society in an emergency, why can the future not be like this too?”

Was I brave today?

This will mean that I will have to keep on speaking up when I see injustice, even when I feel scared and tired. When that happens, I will remember Suna Venter (one of the SABC 8), who had a tattoo that said: “Was I brave today?”

With the fear of death everywhere at the moment, this type of courage is required in big doses. Yet, it seems to me that even more importantly this time is telling us that we should be much more scared of dying without having lived, than of death itself.

As Brene Brown puts it: “Nothing is as scary as getting to the end of our lives and having to ask ourselves, what if I had shown up, what if I had said I love you, what if ….”

So for the next year of my life, I still want to enjoy chocolate dessert and good coffee with friends. But, I also want to show up when it comes to the bigger challenges facing humanity and our natural world.

And of course, I will try to say “thank you” and “I love you” more often.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland


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