I’m very disappointed in humanity right now. Deeply disappointed. It’s very easy to look at the situation in the Middle East and conclude “None of My Business, what’s more, I don’t even understand the dynamics at play in that part of the world. Let me just carry on with my own life. What is it to me?” Shocking.
Let me take you down a road you’ve probably never thought of traveling.
My dad has always had some sort of small business or another. Whatever you can think of, he sold. Shoes, chickens, eggs, groceries, everything. This was in the townships in the eighties, at the height of apartheid. State of emergency and all that chaos. Back then he never really owned a shop, we sold these things out of the house we lived in or the garage or the back of the van he had. You are probably thinking, Oh poor them, they must have been squashed in their little township four-roomed house.
You are right, we were, but who wasn’t back then. But there was a certain pride that went with that. We were in business. Yes he didn’t have business cards embossed with golden letters but people looked at us and thought they are quite fortunate. They have a business. School holidays meant leaving the village to spend time selling something, anything in Johannesburg.
The business was not limited to our house only. A bit later, when I was 10 or 11 my dad acquired a Peugeot van. Wasn’t much to look at but it did the business. He’d carry the stock and place me and the wares by an entrance to an all-male hostel very close to where we lived.
These hostels were apartheid’s attempt at providing accommodation to black fathers who had left their loved ones back in the rural homelands, usually five to six hours(or more) away to come and build the urban economy that kept apartheid’s wheels turning. These men survived up to eleven months a year without seeing their loved ones.
My dad understood their material needs, so when he placed me and the goods by the entrance to the hostel we were an instant hit. These were hard men who did back breaking work during the day but never once did I feel threatened by them. In fact, there wasn’t a place safer to do business for an eleven-year-old left alone to look after large quantities of goods. Some of the men got to know me by name.
And then one day, a yellow police van with two white policemen parked some distance away from my selling point. With the exception of the usual dreaded feeling one got in the presence of the Afrikaner members of the force, I was ok. Nothing new. The men who were entering the hostel all cast a glance in the direction of the van and then muttered something that ended with some sort of profanity. After a while, the police car reversed back to where I was.
“Whose goods are these?”, the policeman driving the van asked.
“My father’s”, I replied. Proud to hold my own in a language I was still learning.
“Where is he?”
“How much are your Benson and Hedges Gold cigarettes?”, the policeman asked. After telling him the price he requested that I pass a pack onto him. I must admit I was wasn’t entirely comfortable just looking at these two bulky Afrikaner males both spotting thick mustaches. They kept looking around as if something was wrong. As soon as I handed the pack of twenty cigarettes to him, the police van took off racing away, without paying.
I was shocked. How was I going to explain this to my dad? How would he believe that men of the law could commit such a blatantly unlawful act?
When I related the story to my dad later, all he could say was “Bastards!”. I didn’t understand why the police acted in the way they did. Why they would target a defenseless little kid like me. Why they would choose to perform that act when no one was watching. They had waited till no one could see them. With all their might and power, they still needed to hide their defenseless acts.
Later, when I was older, I understood that even the mightiest of people felt ashamed when attacking the weak and defenseless. But more to the point, when I grew up I discovered that the actions of those policemen were like those of an occupying army. They were joined in their actions by the South African Defence Force in their day-and-night patrols of the townships. And they spread terror. What happened to me that day was nothing compared to the horrible deeds they carried out on others. It made me scared of them. I detested them too.
I was therefore heartened when I learned of the many friends we had internationally who helped us put pressure on the occupying force to “leave” us in peace.
In 1988 in London the British people put together a spectacle beyond measure to help us celebrate one of our own, Nelson Mandela, who was then in prison. They put together his 70th birthday celebration through a music concert that gladdened the heart of anyone watching. Freedom in our Lifetime was the demand, by people thousands of miles away. People we had never met. People who could only imagine what our daily lives must have been like.
No one wanted to know how we conducted ourselves in fighting the unjust actions of an occupying force. The system was declared a crime against humanity and could not be justified.
As the death toll in Palestine climbed above the 1000 mark this week I could not help but ask myself why people are asking a million questions about the way the Palestinian people defend themselves in the face of a mighty occupying force. It’s not a force that started occupying when the “war” started, it’s a force that is constantly there, everyday. Spreading fear.
When I think of the actions of those two policemen that day in the eighties I can’t help but think that there is a ten-year-old Palestinian boy somewhere, a boy wondering just like I did why grown men would act like that, attack a small, defenseless child when no one is watching. Why they feel no shame in doing that because it’s only natural to feel ashamed when taking advantage of the weak and helpless.
The child does not care one bit for the politics behind the occupation, the religions that keep being blamed and God’s supposed hand in all of this. That child, like me back then, is just wondering why other human beings would behave like that towards their own kind, unless they don’t see themselves as being of their kind.
That child is asking what kind of a war sees more than 300 children killed out of 1000 dead in a supposed war against terrorists. That child is asking how three four-year-old boys playing on a beach can be killed in a “war” against terrorists.
That child, when he discovers that the world once turned into an international army against another occupying force and staged the biggest birthday party for a jailed leader will ask, why is the same world so silent when that jailed leader had once declared “Our freedom will never be complete without the freedom of the Palestinian” people.
Like me, that child is disappointed in the response of the world because he thinks it’s not about politics, it’s about being human. It’s not about being anti-Semitic or pro-Hamas, it’s about being human. No other human being should be allowed to instill fear in another human being through the might of their weapons. That child hopes you read this and felt sorry for him and his people and not judged the author’s politics, religious beliefs or insensitivity to the plight of the Jewish people.
He asks himself the question, how is this a war when only one side is armed to the teeth and using its might to kill three hundred kids. Kids. And he wonders, could I be next?