Two weeks ago a horrific truck crash claimed the lives of 24 people in an instant. The crash, in Pinetown just outside Durban had all South Africans decrying the horrible death statistics on our roads. This past Monday an army reservist shot and killed 12 people in a mass shooting in a Washington Navy yard. Two incidents, two weeks apart in two totally different countries. Do you know what struck me the most about these, their similarities. Ok, so the truck was not driven by a man with mental issues like it has been alleged about the Washington Navy Yard shooter, but I want to suggest to you that the reaction they elicited from citizens in both countries are exactly the same. “Oh, another one, I feel so sorry for the families of the victims. Yes, they should change the laws, I mean, it’s crazy what’s going on”.
And then, the usual focus on the victims, what they did, how many kids they had. A mother in South Africa wished she’d never sent her daughter to town that day. A neighbour to one one of the shooting victims said “this is a tragedy for so many reasons”. I say give it another week or two, it’ll all blow over, and things will be back to “normal”, until another crash or mass shooting occurs. I could not help but agree with the assertion that mass shootings have worked themselves into the culture of the United States. Similarly, truck crashes, bus crashes and minibus taxi crashes are now a part of the South African culture. We know the rituals we follow when these happen. Even President Barack Obama agrees. He had this to say about the mass shooting.
“I do get concerned that this becomes a ritual that we go through every three, four months, where we have these horrific mass shootings. Everybody expresses understandable horror. We all embrace the families and obviously our thoughts and prayers are with those families right now – as they’re absorbing this incredible loss.
“And yet we’re not willing to take some basic actions that we know would make a difference.” Substitute the words “mass shootings” in his statement with “car accidents” and you will get a typical statement from our Minister of Transport, whoever happens to wear the mantle at the time.
Seeing as these sort of incidents are now part of the cultures of both these countries allow me to take it a step further. Here’s what I think South Africa’s tourist brochure should include: “Welcome to sunny South Africa, alive with possibilities, the land of Nelson Mandela a.k.a The Miracle Rainbow Nation. We pride ourselves with our potpourri of cultures, our Unity through Diversity, and Oh, by the way, it’s December, our roads need to meet their target of 1500 deaths this month, it happens every year like clockwork!”
How about this one for the USA: “Welcome to the United States of America, the land of the Brave and Free, the land of dreams. Our constitution and rule of law are unmatched in the industrialized world. But wait for this, every couple of months we have a mass shooting! It’s been a couple of months since the last one but anytime now a ‘crazy’, PTSD-tormented, sometimes racist, anti-Semitic, bullied gunman will kill 12 or more people! Anytime now!”.
The rituals go something like this, mass shooting/bus crash occurs: Everyone screams about changing the laws, enforcing current laws, gun laws and traffic laws. And you and I, will look at ourselves and think “I drive safely, I obey all the rules, in fact I grew up around guns and have never had the urge to discharge it in a public place, let alone shoot unarmed people, nobody I know would drive like those maniacs on the road”. Listen, it’s not about you. It’s about that kid in Grade 1 who may be shot by someone we don’t want to acknowledge are own society created. Or that poor girl whose mother sent to town and never came back because our culture of bad driving took her away.
I feel you, you were shocked and disgusted by the latest incident but what can you do? I’m certain you’ve heard the story about the frog being boiled to death in an open pot, the frog doesn’t jump out because it acclimatises to the rising water temperature. Until it dies. Or you’ve seen the fly repeatedly banging itself against a clean window pane, because it doesn’t realise it’s not going anywhere. That’s what happened to our societies. We are now used to these mass deaths. We issue the same statements after each incident, we are horrified, we want to change laws but obviously it’s not working. “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, who said that again. Oh Yes, that genius of a man called Albert Einstein. He must have had us in mind when he said that.
So, why is it so difficult for governments to take decisive action over something as terminal as a massacre or a truck crash?
Let’s do something DIFFERENT. Our current reactions to the incidents are not working. Imagine this. An incident like the Pinetown truck crash happens. Our president calls an emergency meeting,on the agenda, only one item: the crash. His most intelligent and trusted advisors are there. He’s also called the chairperson of the Pinetown Residents Association, they bring along their road accident reconstruction experts and copies of their online petition. The Minister of higher education has brought along a thesis by a Doctorate student at The University of The Witwatersrand on Road Deaths in South Africa: The solutions”. The meeting lasts 4 hours. At the press conference the President announces that the stretch of road has now been declared a truck-free zone as the residents have been requesting for the past 10 years. All heavy-duty truck and bus drivers under the age of 30 to be retested. All bus drivers who have ever caused fatal accidents to be retested. It sounds crazy I know, but it’s different!
We’d be shocked! Is that our President? We would also request whatever he’d had that morning for breakfast, but most importantly, for once, he would have broken away from the culture represented by this statement: “It’s time we begin to thoroughly assess and fully comprehend the cost of crashes to our economy”, that’s Dipuo Peters for you, our current Minister of transport. Really, 100 000 deaths later(since 1994) and it’s only now that “it’s time”. Ag Nee!
Across the Atlantic, President Obama would have called a similar emergency meeting. News reports coming out of the White house are going something like “Rumour has it that he’s never been as furious as he was on Monday following the massacre. He called the head of Departmnet of Psychiatry/Psychology at Harvard to the meeting. He wanted to understand why so many mental issues are going undetected in the general population, what can be done on a mass scale to correct such high levels of anger in the nation. Thorough psychological examinations would now be part of acquiring a gun licence, not only semi-automatics but all guns. The right to self-protection would now be superseded by the right of others to life. He even enlisted the help of Hollywood director Michael Moore, wanting to understand why his peers gave him an Oscar for his documentary, Bowling for Columbine, about the 1999 Coumbine High School shooting. At the press conference, he’s expected to announce brave and drastic new measures that will change the culture of owning guns throughout the country”.
I hear you saying “Dream On”. John Lennon answered you a long time ago, he said “you might say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”. Imagine.
I despair at the thought that none of the scenarios I’ve painted above will play themselves out at either the White House or the Union Buildings in Pretoria anytime soon. After all, our presidents have got countries to run(yeah right!). But another mass shooting will happen, another tragic bus/truck accident is coming. I would rather my leaders work to change things than run governments, if you know what I mean. Even with the suggestions I’ve made, change would take a while, but I’m certain the culture of being used to mass death would be changed. Let’s keep on agitating for change, for leaders who will think out of the box.
Hi. My name is Rosina*. I am 46 years old. I work for a cleaning company that’s contracted to do cleaning in an Engineering firm. The Engineering firm produces car accessories like tow bars and bull bars, anything based on metal. My job is to clean the offices of the bosses. Last week the Union for the metal manufacturing workers declared a wage strike starting on Monday. I called my boss and asked if I should go to work on Monday and he asked me if our cleaning company produces any metal products. I said no and he said go to work then.(*Name changed out of fear – please note that Rosina is a composite fictional character created to bring about a sense of reality to the stories of intimidation that always accompany strikes in our country).
On Sunday evening I could not sleep because I was really afraid of what would happen on Monday when I went to work. My friend, Tshidi, who got me this job had come to see me on Saturday. She used to do the same job that I’m doing and she told me that two years ago, she and another woman were forced to go to work when the metal workers strike started. On their way to work, a group of men from the Engineering firm spotted them on the train.
Amongst this group of men were two women also wearing the red T-shirts of the Union. The group of men asked them why they were going to work because there was a strike on. Before they could answer, the two women in the group surged forward and started slapping them. The bigger of the two women grabbed my friend Tshidi by her work uniform’s front pockets and yanked them so hard they got torn off. Then the second woman shouted that this was nothing, they should undress them.
How could one woman do this another, Tshidi asked me. I couldn’t answer.
The men just kept on singing a song about “rats”. Tshidi later learned that “rats” were people who go to work when others are on strike. The song said the rats should be thrown off the moving train. Tshidi said she started begging for the women to just strip them naked but not throw them off the train. Now the school kids going to on the train jumped onto the seats to get a better view of Tshidi and her friend as they were stripped naked and assaulted.
Tshidi says she just knelt down and started praying. As they approached the next station where they were supposed to get off, the group sang louder. The beatings had stopped now, Tshidi says some of the people on the train had taken out their cellphones and recorded videos of their humiliation. Luckily the whole chanting group got off at that station and an elderly woman gave Tshidi and her friend her jacket and her shawl to cover up. The elderly woman kept on muttering “comrades, mxm”.
Tshidi’s eyes were now filled with tears as she continued relating the story. She says since there was still some way to go before getting to her station she got up, covered her self with the old woman’s clothes and she and her friend sat on either side of the elderly woman. The woman put her arms around them and drew them close. She started relating a story of how she, herself had in the early eighties gone through a similar experience.
She said she used to work as a domestic worker Johannesburg’s Northern suburbs which were then exclusively inhabited by white people. During the festive season the “comrades” declared a boycott of all white-owned shops, to pressure the then government into making political changes. One day, on her way back from work, she bought a loaf of bread and washing powder from one of these shops because she thought the “comrades” would have dispersed by the time she reached the townships in the evening. She was wrong. The bright yellow-coloured shopping plastic bag gave her away.
She says she was made to eat her groceries, the powder soap included. Luckily, the “comrades” back then had some respect, they would not beat up an elderly woman. But today’s comrades had no respect. Tshidi says the old woman then turned and looked her in the eye and asked, “Tell me my child, how does stripping naked a middle-aged mother on a train get you the 10% wage increase you are demanding from the bosses at work?” Tshidi could not answer.
After Tshidi left I made up my mind that I’m going to work because my daughter’s school fees are due at the end of the month, I can’t afford “no work no pay” or worse, to be fired. My daughter is the first person to attend University in my family. The Union can wait.
The train journey was safe enough, it was the walk from the train station to work that filled me with fear. I had decided to catch an early morning train to avoid any striking workers, and that plan seemed to have worked. I could not understand why the Union bosses could not explain to their members that not every worker could be a Union member or could afford to stay away from work, or why they could not stop them from assaulting non-strikers, especially people like me who are only contractors who will not benefit one bit from the strike.
The bosses trickled into the offices one by one. You could sense the tension in the offices. The workshop floor was deserted, not a single worker in sight. Instead they had congregated outside the company’s gates and were singing militant songs. All was well until about midday when the striking workers decided to move into the premises. I was on my lunch break but luckily behind closed doors when they came. They were looking for the “rats”. The company bosses seemed to get really agitated by all the commotion.
As I sat hiding on the third floor of the administration building, shaking like a leaf, Tshidi’s words kept ringing in my ears.
Tshidi had told me the old woman on the train had kept asking: “We were told that freedom came in 1994 when we voted. What kind of freedom brings fear with it?” As I looked at the chanting workers, I could not understand how a people who themselves were once victims of humiliating acts visited on them by the authorities could twenty years later humiliate each other like this. Perhaps, as the old woman had suggested, the “comrades had only gained freedom to humiliate their own people” but had not been freed themselves.
“Freedom to rule she said, was not necessarily freedom if not accompanied by freedom of the mind, that’s why they were stealing from their own people, abusing the people’s money. Their minds are still in bondage”. The old lady had further said, there was “nothing as worse as leaving the enemy alone and fighting yourselves”. She said even her pot-smoking Rastafarian neighbour understood this more than the comrades: “only ourselves can free our minds” he kept on saying every time she lamented corruption in government. She said that they did all this in the name of economic freedom, but she said if that economic freedom came with this sort of fear, she didn’t want it.
I got home okay yesterday. I watched the evening news and the national Union bosses claimed a 90% success rate in people staying away from work. He also condemned “any” violence that had unfortunately occurred, “these were not necessarily Union members causing all the havoc”.
Suddenly I, Rosina, knew what I wanted, it wasn’t for the bosses to give them their 10% so they could leave me alone, it was for us to be really free, without fear. That my colleagues will not be ruled by fear of this freedom. My daughter, who’s at university, once told me that she came across a book by Bantu Steve Biko, I Write What I Like. She says in the book, the government of the day ruled the country by instilling fear in everyone, but Biko reasoned that this was a fear that could not last, for it masked a real anger at the prevailing conditions. On the 12th of September, some people commemorated his death. He died in 1977. I miss him in a way, surely today he would be writing against this kind fear, the kind that’s being used to keep people like me in bondage every strike season.
My neighbour who works at a petrol filling station told me a funny story yesterday. Petrol station attendants are on strike too, meaning they are not refueling cars at gas stations. He says at about six in the evening a big-shot Union guy pulled into the station looking for petrol. This after earlier that day he had sworn the workers would bring the whole province to a standstill, “petrol stations will run dry…” I guess he forgot to fill up his tank the day before the strike season swung into gear, now he was looking for “rats” to fill up his car. Eish, strike season!
“Retreating is not surrendering, it’s gathering one’s strength”, that’s a literal translation of a SePedi saying(Go tshetshela morago ase go tshaba, ke go tseya maatla). More aptly, this saying conjures up a picture of one engaged in battle, when defeat looks imminent, the person retreats, only to regroup and come back stronger, to continue the battle with more power.
Most people would like the world to believe that they lead a regret-free like. And sure there are those people who do. Bless them. For the rest of humanity, those of us who look back and wish that at certain pivotal moments during the course of our lives we could have made different decisions, looking back is necessary. Looking back will indeed give us the power to continue, to a regret-free future, hopefully.
There is a very persuasive movement currently underway, a movement towards “what’s done is done”, or “forget regret or life is yours to miss”. This movement wants us to believe that looking back, evening just a casual glance over your shoulder will cause you to stagnate, or even worse, stumble and fall. I call them anti-revisionists, it just sounds like educated English, you can call them whatever you like. These people believe if you focus positively on the future the past doesn’t matter.
I’m one of those people who look back and honestly wish I had made certain decisions differently. Regret? Not really. I don’t wish I could go back there, No. I just wish at those pivotal moments I could have had the wisdom that hindsight so liberally imbues us with. You know what they say, with hindsight everyone’s a genius, or something like that.
Where I differ fundamentally with anti-revisionists is that looking back will hold you back. In fact, I would recommend stopping, sitting down and having a good look at the path that’s brought you where you are. If it looks good, bless you. If, like me, looking back makes you want to hurry forward, running away from your past, then the anti-revisionists are right, you’ll go nowhere.
If looking back fills you with shame or pain, then looking back is absolutely necessary. Whilst life doesn’t provide us with an opportunity to go back an undo whatever damage was done, it does provide us with an opportunity to go back there mentally and make peace with that past. That way the past can stay in the past and you can go forward peacefully. But how do you know if you need to go back digging into your past? How do you know if making peace with it will help?
The way I see it or have experienced it is that if there is an extended period in your past that fills you with shame, pain or fear when you think of the events of that time, then you need to go against the anti-revisionists and go back there. From personal experience, the amount of power that one gets from staring the shame, the fear and the pain in the face is immeasurable. I am not suggesting it’s easy or painless. It’s not. It must be harrowingly painful in certain cases, especially those whose pasts are filled with all sorts of abuse. In cases like those, the looking back process obviously needs to be facilitated by a trained professional or counsellor.
For a long time I lived with a low-level fear of my past. It’s not a fear that sent me into shivers or anything but was just such a continuous feature of my life it became a part of me. It was there all the time but when I recently started facing up to it, it turned out I had made a mountain out of a molehill. I had this recurring fear about being ‘found out’ to be not who I put myself out to be. Sounds trivial, but if this thing is with you 24/7 it becomes so much a part of you.
You are always worried about your future because your past worries you, you worry that your future may turn out to be a leaf out of your past. So much so that when I started looking back, facing up to it, and found out the source of the shame and fear, it automatically diminished. Like they say, you can actually feel the load lift off your shoulders.
Because this fear was a part of me for so many years, when it started lifting up and drifting off, I sort of “missed it”. I could literally feel the hollowness it left in me and I worried a bit that I was not worried anymore. Now I understand why the house slaves never wanted to leave the master when they were granted their freedom, the voice of the master had become so much a part of them that they believed they were nothing without the master. That hollowness needs to be filled with a positive outlook for the future. For me that positive outlook is my faith in Jesus, without it it’s so easy to allow the enemy, the fear, back in.
What the anti-revisionists forget to tell people is that unless you have made peace with events in your past, you can only move forward to more of the same. Making peace with your past for me, takes courage. It doesn’t mean torturing yourself with unchangeable events, but rather, going back to those events and dis-empowering them, taking that power back into your current life. Then you can move forward. I’ve heard it said before that “hurting people hurt people”. Logically, it makes no sense that a person who has survived terrible events(like abuse) would want to visit those on another human being because they know the pain it can cause. But people do, some abuse survivors carry on to abuse others. Looking back in cases like those is painful but absolutely necessary.
An online commentator says: “it’s not easy to look back, but when we do, we face the truth. You open the wound with courage and the determination to move forward. You deal with whatever you need to deal with…you are going back there for the impact you want to make, the story you want to tell”(www.thenakedelephant.com).
I, indeed have a story to tell. So do you. Don’t look at it as regret, rather look at it as slaying your dragons. I hope that whatever it is that fills you with shame, pain or fear in your past will one day get a very special visit from you. A visit that will leave the fear disrobed, the pain eased and the shame dis-empowered. After all, retreating is not surrender, it’s refueling for the battles that lie ahead.