It’s not often that one wakes up on a particular day and say, today I’m going to be a part of history. Twenty years ago on this day I woke up and said exactly those words to myself. 27 April 1994.
Like ArchBishop Desmond Tutu said, it was a feeling unlike any other : ‘It is an incredible feeling, like falling in love.’ And I can testify. It was. I don’t know about you but damn, first time I fell in love, the world seemed perfect, as though everything was bending to my will. I felt like I was floating and had this grin on my face that I couldn’t get rid of.
The day before that historic election found me on the dusty streets of Tembisa, I’ve always wanted to use that phrase ‘dusty streets of Tembisa’, don’t be misled, 80% or more of South African township streets were dusty because they were not tarred at the time. The apartheid government had better priorities, like ensuring all the white suburbs were tarred, and they were. Why this phrase became a catch-phrase beats me.
Anyway, I had four friends who lived in my street and we agreed that we were going to be the first in line to vote. Voting stations were due to open at 7am. We planned it such that we would be there by 5am, a good two hours before they opened. Although the day itself had been declared a public holiday, it was made even sweeter because if fell within school holidays. So everybody was home.
1994 had been preceded by a really tumultuous 1993. Exactly a year year before we voted, on 10 April 1993, Chris Martin Thembisile Hani, the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party was assassinated. If ever there was a day South Africa could have gone to war, that was the day. Chris Hani had been one of those leaders whose aura was felt long before he returned from exile. He was the leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress, and we had heard lots of stories of his bravery in the fight against apartheid. He had actively engaged with the South African army with the Zimbabwean freedom fighters and the stories of his bravery were legendary.
It was therefore such an amazingly contrast-filled reality when he finally returned from exile and we met this very well-spoken leader, well read too. He was fiery alright but very likeable. This Shakespeare-quoting smiling man with an Afro was the last person you would expect to be the object of white hatred. Even though he was almost always clad in military fatigues at political rallies, he projected an image of an educated leader, full of reason. You had no choice but to take him to heart.
10 April 1993 was the first time I had felt a searing pain for the death of someone who was not a family member. When I heard he had been shot dead, like most of my countrymen I felt this is the day South Africa goes down. There had been instances before like the Boipatong massacre in 1992 when it felt like the negotiations process had not only stalled but hit a brick wall. But this time it felt like the worst was about to happen, a civil war. There are images of him lying on his driveway that I cannot get out of my mind to this day. I was scared.
That evening, Nelson Mandela was beamed live into our living rooms, extolling all of us, black and white, to act with restraint. I think I’ve said it before on this blog, Mandela was inaugurated as President in May 1994, but he became the de facto president of this country on that evening of 10 April 1993, the day Chris Hani died. Needless to say, a civil war was averted, but a certain urgency had been injected into the negotiations process. It was like Chris Hani’s blood had indeed ‘watered the tree that bore the fruits of liberation’.
The date of 27 April 1994 was set soon after Chris Hani’s death, July 1993 I think. Voter registration and education commenced. I was fortunate enough to be part of a group of young people who ran voter education Workshops that gave me an insight into what people were thinking prior to our date with destiny, 27 April 1994. I remember a young girl asking me in Orange Farm, then just a ‘squatter camp’ south of Johannesburg: “what will happen if the Right Wing groups like the AWB do no accept the result of the election?” I had no proper answer to her question. But like lots of other South Africans, I just knew they had had their chance at derailing things, it was our turn now. Faith.
It didn’t matter that political violence was at its highest just before the polls. In fact, on average, in 1993, deaths due to political violence averaged 205 a month. A month after the date was announced that figure climbed to over 600. Bombs were going off at various points throughout the country.It didn’t matter that the Inkatha Freedom Party had decided not to take part in the election. This train was leaving and if you were not on it, tough.
So that morning, on the 27th of April 1994, a twenty-year-old me woke up and together with three of my friends walked in darkness to the polling station. We were indeed the first in line. People started trickling in soon afterwards. The elderly and disabled were given preference in the queue and I think by the time the electoral staff arrived my friends and I were now twenty to thirty places away from the front of the queue, it did not matter though. It was a good four hours before I actually entered that classroom that served as a polling station at Marhulana Primary School.
I cannot recall every step I took, but I still remember the sense that I was making history walking into that classroom. Over three hundred years of struggle had culminated in me having the right to walk into that classroom and place my mark next to the smiling face of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. I didn’t fully understand the full weight of my cross on that ballot paper, but I knew that it was a cross to reclaim our dignity, a cross that said good will always triumph over evil. A cross for freedom.
And today, as I look back, I am truly proud and privileged to have been part of that time in our history. Talk about parents timing your conception to perfection. It’s only now that it occurs to me that had that day come just two years earlier I would have been deprived of a chance to share my role in history with you. I would have been too young to vote, but as it turns out, I was just the right age. Happy freedom day.
And oh, by the way, the classroom that served as a polling station on that historic day was one in which my mom had been teaching for many years before, and continued to do so for close to twenty years afterwards. Just thought I’d slip that in there.
I didn’t realise how hooked I am on the Oscar Pistorius trial till somebody asked me something concerning the expert witness called immediately after Oscar, forensic geologist Dr Roger Dixon who moonlights as a ballistics expert, a pathologist, a light/darkness expert, a materials compositions expert and a wound ballistics expert. A supposed Jack of all trades and yes, master of none.
Having watched the accused duck, bob and weave his way through cross-examination, I expected his defence team to come back really strongly with expert scientific evidence that would leave the less scientifically inclined in a spin. What we got though was this: Gerrie Nel(Prosecutor) asked: Dr Dixon, which instrument did you use to measure the light or darkness in the accused’s bedroom? Dr Dixon(defence expert witness): I used my eyes, M’lady. And he didn’t even laugh when he said that. I couldn’t help but laugh, this man is a scientist and all he used were his eyes!
Now, before you start judging, Dr Roger Dixon has a Doctorate in Geology(hence his title, Dr) and a whole host of other qualifications he gained whilst working in police forensics. What he doesn’t have is a mastery of all the other fields that he managed to convince himself and Oscar’s defence counsel that he has.
This got me thinking, which I do quite a bit these days trying to apply my mind to all the legal principles at play here, what do you call someone who is convinced that they know something, and are able to convince others that they actually do know that something whilst they actually don’t and don’t know that they don’t know? No, not a fraud. A fraud knows he/she doesn’t know what they are claiming to know.
And No, they are not delusional because then the other people would actually pick it up that they do not know their story. This person has all the appearances of a person who knows. They can explain the theory of bullets hitting an object and the what the angle of entry means but they simply do not possess enough knowledge to survive cross examination in a court of law. For lack of a good English word I will call such a person a Roger Dixon. You know, after Oscar Pistorius’ expert witness.
Suppose you are sitting on the beach with a friend and see a dolphin leap up into the air, do a somersault and land back in the water tail first and your friend says: “Do you know that Dolphins can travel at speeds of up to 100km per hour on their tails?” You are on the beach and cannot Google this, simply respond “Don’t be a Roger Dixon now” and carry on enjoying the sun.
Look, I have given this a lot of thought. We could have fun inventing all the other categories of people which could then be entered into the Oxford Dictionary: anybody who uses the phrases “I cannot remember/recall”, “I forgot”, “I have no independent recollection” and “I don’t know” in trying to answer the same question could be said to have Pistorian Tendencies.
This person would be totally different from the one who would be scolded by saying ” Don’t be an Oscar Pistorius now” because a Pistorian would not necessarily lie through their teeth or deny an obvious truth.
Being an Oscar Pistorius would refer to lying in the face of insurmountable truth. An example: It is a known fact that a Glock firearm cannot discharge a bullet without the trigger being pulled. A Glock firearm is accepted as having discharged a bullet whilst in Oscar’s hand, but, wait for this, he will not accept that he pulled the trigger! So if someone close to you denies an obvious truth or tells a glaring lie, you can easily dismiss them ” no man, don’t be Oscar Pistorius about this”. Quite different from Pistorian tendencies.
“Don’t Oscar the issue” would refer to someone who when asked a simple question like, “where were you born” they respond: “See, my mom and dad met in the US, and my mother went back to the UK when she was seven months pregnant. My dad tells me there is a chance she gave birth prematurely halfway between the US and the UK. I was raised in South Africa and started school….”, at which point you would interject, “please don’t Oscar the issue, where were you born?”, alternatively, “you are such an Os**r sometimes you know that”, when utterly pissed off by a very evasive person.
The scope for this is huge, humongous. I mean, imagine, there are people like Tony Blair who told lies on the international stage, accusing Iraq of hiding huge amounts of weapons of mass destruction. An official caught lying about the existence or non-existence of a document or such could be punished “because if you were not so Tony Blair about this we would allow you to keep your job”
But Tony was not alone in setting the stage for what was the most blatant plan to topple and then kill Saddam Hussein. He had George Dubya with him. Now, a more despicable leader of a very advanced nation is hard to come by. Besides his “Fool me once and fool me twice” buffoonery, here was a leader who if somebody shouted at you, you are such a “George Dubya” any court of law would acquit you if became violent in response to their clearly insulting provocation.
A person who lies, believes their own lie, convinces others that their own lie is the truth and does not know that they are lying whilst refusing to accept an obvious truth and being evasive in answering the most simple of questions could be accused of being a George W. Bush with Pistorian Tendencies and being a Roger Dixon of Tony Blair Proportions. If that person caused a war whilst at it we would not hesitate to call them a “piece of Os**r”! Excuse my language!
A dear friend wrote a very funny piece on the use of platitudes recently, Friends don’t let friends use platitudes. Although I found it very funny, it made me sit up and listen to what I say to people who’ve had unfortunate things happen to them. Out of her list of ten common platitudes that people use, I found I had used two or three consistently, although I believed for good reasons. I also found that people generally use them when they cannot explain why they did something stupid or when their limited human understanding cannot allow them to explain terrible things that happen to other people.
The most common platitude that I have found is used with reckless abandon amongst people I know is “It was God’s will”. This is generally said to a person who is mourning someone very dear to them, and meant to convey that “even though this situation appears to have elements of evil in it, do not for one second think that God abandoned you. It was his will to take your beloved”. What the ….? Run that by me again, are you saying God purposefully took the one person I loved with all my heart, that it was his will that I hurt like I’ve never hurt before?
I’m extremely reluctant to discuss my thoughts on God on a public platform, for the simple reason that people often use their religion or beliefs to reveal their uncivilized side, leading to all manner of insults. But I was watching a TV program recently and a member of a provincial government chose to answer a question by invoking that most misused of platitudes: It was God’s will. This she said in reference to the death of a six-year-old boy who fell into the pit of a pit toilet in Limpopo a few weeks ago.
“God’s will?” That set off a deluge of unprintable words and phrases in my head. But what came out of my mouth was “What kind of a God would purposefully snatch a six-year-old boy from his parents in such a horrible way?”
Let me get this one thing out of the way before proceeding, I cannot imagine a world in which God is not at the centre of its existence, so if you were going to go all righteous on me thinking I’ve turned my back on my God, think again. All I’m questioning is why is it that we purport to worship an all-loving God but then ascribe the most horrible things to Him.
A God who is love would not visit evil things on his children. When a child dies, it is a premature death, whichever way you look at it. A loving God would not snatch away a child from people He loves. It’s not logical. God works in mysterious ways but not evil or painful ways.
It’s a very painful thing to hear supposed men of God stand on a pulpit and continuously say you lost your loved one because “It was God’s will”. Ke Thato ya Modimo, that’s the Tswana/Sotho equivalent. I include it here because it’s the most commonly used where around me and although it carries the same weight in translation to “It was God’s will” it’s slightly more “offensive” if you will. It carries the unexplainable connotation that it was “the will of God, what he loved or purposed for you”.
My friend suggested that if you don’t know what to say to a person who’s had terrible things happens to him/her why don’t you just say “sh*t that sucks! sorry it happened to you” or ” I don’t really know what to say”. Better yet, why don’t you simply say “this is such a terrible thing to have happened to you, I wish I could explain it but I can’t”. That’s more comforting than telling a person “the deity you call your Creator willed for this terrible tragedy to happen to you, he ‘loved’ and purposed it for you”.
For people who are mere creations of this loving God, we sure speak so much on his behalf. When we do not understand things we tell others he works in mysterious ways. When we can not explain tragedy we call it “His Will”.
The official who stated that the death of the toddler was God’s will was avoiding taking responsibility for the actions(or lack of actions) of her department. The interviewer had suggested to her that her department should take responsibility should a similar tragedy occur because she has had ample warning by way of the toddler’s preventable death. A preventable death is just that, a death that could have been prevented if human beings had done what they are appointed to do. We cannot ascribe human negligence to God.
Luckily, the God in the Bible does clarify some things for us: in the book of John 10 verse 10 he tells us, among other things that “… I came so that you might have life, and have it in abundance(more abundantly)”. I am yet to come across scripture that says every horrible death is through my will.
I have been reasonably fortunate in life that I have not had a lot of instances that people have come up to me and looked me in the eye and told me “it was God’s will”. The one time that it did happen, it hurt a lot and I kept asking myself the one question that a person who believes in an all-loving God should never have to ask themselves, “What kind of God is it that takes the life of someone so young and so horribly?”. It cannot be his loving will. It is people ascribing it to him.
Like my friend says, when terrible things happen to other people, simply say to them, “Sh*t happens, I’m sorry it happened to you'(obviously paraphrasing). Don’t blame it on God.
One of the ‘nice’ things about writing is the research one gets to do for each piece. Take for instance, the phrase, ‘to turn a blind eye’, would you believe that it originates from a real-life story of a general at war? The said general is handed a telescope to watch his troops engaged in a battle. He proceeds to place the telescope on the one eye blinded in past wars, and obviously misses the fact that his troops are losing the war badly, but he announces that ‘there is no problem’. In other words he turned a blind eye to a problem that was there for all to see. Amusing, don’t you think? Didn’t know any of this till last week.
This got me thinking. In light of our national elections happening exactly a month from today, which other phrase can one use to describe our nation’s pulse right now, what’s is the governing party doing? Are they turning a blind eye to problems or are they perhaps doing what ostriches supposedly do: “bury their heads in the sand”. Having been inspired by suddenly knowing the origins of “turning the blind eye”, I immediately set to work researching the origins of “to bury your head in the sand”. Ok ok, so I Googled it, big deal, it’s still research.
It turns out that the phrase “to bury your head in the sand”(refusing to face a problem) is based on a myth perpetuated by an ancient Roman writer who observed that Ostriches “hide their heads in the bushes”. I have not studied ostrich behavior but Google further assures me that ostriches do not hide their heads in the bush nor in the sand. The only exception is when they feeding that they lower their heads to access food, but then again which bird doesn’t lower its head to reach its food?.
What does this have to do with our May 7 date with destiny, an election marking exactly 20 years since the dawn of democracy? Everything. This election should have been about measuring the strides our young democracy has made since 1994. The question should be whether we are moving at the right pace in the fight against poverty? Are we still on course to eliminate it? Have our democratic structures like the Constitutional Court stood the test of time? In other words, we should be taking stock.
But here we are, 30 days from the election and all we are hearing over and over again is one swearword. Nkandla. Other variations of the word include the word “Nkandlagate”, President’s compound and “Homestead”. I challenge you to Google it and you will discover it means corruption, maladministration and a whole host of other negative things.
How did we move the spotlight from issues like unemployment, education, poor service delivery, housing backlog, police reforms, human rights abuses, worker’s rights and economic growth to focus this high-powered laser beam of national debate on one man’s home(homestead, compound, dwelling…you pick)?
The answer is we “turned a blind eye” to a festering wound. The leadership of the ruling party chose to “bury their heads in the sand” when confronted with a problem. No, not like ostriches, because we have established that ostriches do not do that. But like “refusing to face the problem” which is what the phrase means.
There is always a danger when people think with their hearts when they are supposed to think with their heads. In 2005 when the current president was removed from his post as the then deputy president for having an “obviously corrupt” relationship with convicted fraudster Schabir Schaik, most of us felt affronted. We felt this humble servant of the people was being victimized and humiliated because the then president was elitist and not a man of the people. We sympathized with the victim, thinking with our hearts, and damn, did he pull those heartstrings?
Had we used our heads instead we would have thanked the learned President Mbeki for getting rid of a cancer in its early stages. We could have further used our heads to reason that the learned President Mbeki could be replaced by someone else who could take the people into his/her confidence as they went about ruling our country. But no, we went with our hearts, forgave an obviously flawed leader at own expense. How do you use your head when you’ve buried it in the sand?
I mean, the man tried to warn us, he was divisive without even trying, the consequences of which we are still feeling today. You were either in his camp or the enemy. In the ruling party. In its youth league. In the workers unions. In the ruling of the provinces. He couldn’t keep out of court, either as a defendant or suing. He had questionable morals, the result of which is a child out of wedlock. Yet our hearts said, he is a victim, we must support him. We dug the sand deeper to keep our heads buried.
The brain drain that followed the ousting of President Mbeki gave us further warnings that the cancer was growing, starving us of principled leaders who were not prepared to serve under an obviously flawed leader.
Whilst I use the collective noun “We” to include everyone in the election of a leader who went on to turn a blind eye when a R20m security project at his home ballooned to R250m, blame needs to be put squarely on the leadership that surrounds the President and continues to enable him to keep up the pretenses that everything is fine.
Edmund Burke is credited with having said that “Evil is enabled when men of good conscience choose to keep silent”. In our case, men of good conscience like Cyril Ramaphosa and the departing Trevor Manuel have been cowed into silence from the obvious fear of being seen to divide the movement, when the movement has long been divided by the actions of the faction that has sought to defend evil at all costs. Yes, it’s evil to take money intended for poverty alleviation projects and divert it to the homestead of a president “who never asked for it” as he reminded us last week.
And thus Nkandla took centre stage. And having missed the growth of the cancer whilst it was still growing into the monster that it is now, the upcoming election has forced the leadership who had previously buried their heads in the sand to surface and defend the President at all costs. In the mistaken belief or assertion that an attack on the President is an attack on the African National Congress. They could not be more wrong. People still love the movement with all their hearts and most have an emotional attachment to it for what its history stands for.
What people hate is having to be seen to endorse the actions of a leader who not only turns a blind eye, but chooses to refuse to see. “There are none so blind as those who will not see”. In his refusal, he has spawned a network of leaders of good conscience who are forced to defend evil.
Because the majority still loves the ANC, they will return them to power. Victory is certain. But as I put those words down, Victory is Certain, another phrase comes to mind, one I learnt many years ago watching a movie, “Lean on Me” if I’m not mistaken: Pyrrhic Victory.
Although I know its meaning, in keeping with my ‘research’ spirit(read Google), I researched it origins and found that “The phrase Pyrrhic victory is named after Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose army suffered irreplaceable casualties in defeating the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC and Asculum in 279 BC during the Pyrrhic War”.
In other words, a Pyrrhic victory is a “hollow” victory, a victory that’s not worth it. And I asked myself: When leaders of good conscience are compromised in defence of one man, when a historic movement closes ranks behind a hugely flawed leader, are we not headed for a Pyrrhic Victory? Are we going to bury our heads in the sand and turn a blind eye until a historic movement is obliterated? One of my favourite songs is Bob Marley’s “Time will Tell”. Only time will answer these questions.