Since Phoebe instructed me to speak to you tonight, I have grown more and more nervous about where to find the words to do justice to Jakes’ multifaceted life and contribution to our country.
He would not approve of fawning (as an old man I’m mindful of the fact that Jakes and I will soon meet again, upstairs – and he’s actually both taller and younger than me!). I think Jakes would approve if the annual lecture we have the honour of inaugurating tonight becomes a platform for honest reflection about who and where we are, and the direction in which our beloved country is heading.
Finally, after scratching my head so long that all my hair fell out, I decided that the most appropriate starting point for this discourse would be the state of non-racialism. We were a symbol of racism; now we have a Constitution that enshrines the equal rights of all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religious belief. And Jakes was one of our architects.
Indeed, Jakes Gerwel’s greatest achievement was not merely to preside over the evolution of this institution from a bush college for people designated “Coloured” into a university of repute. No, he might have sought to build a university of repute only for those who looked and spoke like him, but he chose instead the muchharder path: de-racialisation.
It was a radical and audacious project carried out determinedly, quietly and with precision, under the noses of the very Coloured authority of the day that established and funded the institution. To create the circumstances for Coloured resources to benefit Africans, and even a few whites, was utterly revolutionary. To succeed was extraordinary.
WHO WE ARE
We all come from different traditions and cultures. Some of us have “kroes hare”, like Jakes, while others have silky soft locks. Some have bigger noses, some have paler skin, some worship in mosques, and some speak isiZulu. It gets a little complicated here, because some who were classified European had “kroes hare” – similar to Jakes’ – while some who were classified Bantu have since been found to contain one-quarter-Khoisan – like me.
But the point that should not get lost in all of this is that, amazingly, when you transplant a white person’s heart into a black person’s chest, IT WORKS. When we have blood transfusions what’s important is the blood type not the colour – it’s all red.
Much cleverer people than I have determined that human life began in Africa; that no matter how we look or where we live, we are all, ultimately, Africa. If youthink about it, this makes us all members of one human family; if those Ancestry websites went back far enough we’d find we all share the same great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. We are brothers and sisters – or, at least, distant relatives – in one family, God’s family, all of us!
Families should not discriminate among their children. Imagine, for example, if we said that babies born with brown eyes should qualify for more food and better education than those born with blue eyes. Or, babies born with thumbs longer than one-inch should sleep outdoors. It sounds preposterous, and that is just how preposterous apartheid was.
Over the centuries philosophers and faith leaders have tried to pin down the ultimate formula for our coexistence on earth. From east, west, north and south a single thread has emerged, known as the ethic of reciprocity or the Golden Rule, expressed in the Judeo-Christian faiths as, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
In Africa we speak of Ubuntu. We say a person is a person through other persons. We are made for each other. Together, we are stronger than the strength of our component parts.
Ourextraordinary first President, uTata Madiba, understood this clearly, and one of the most remarkable and often-overlooked features of our transition to democracy was the manner in which he elected his team on merit.
He succeeded in plaiting a strong rope from three disparate and competitive strands of comrades – ANC members in exile, ANC members who remained within the country and people from the broader anti-apartheid movement – that epitomised our collective spirit of hope. And he put them to work in our Government of National Unity.
Had his approach to merit selection been similar to that of the Springbok rugby coach, a player such as Jakes Gerwel may have been put on the wing – and starved of the ball. (Dullah Omar would have been fortunate to make the bench…).
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the birth of our democracy, and our fifth democratic election, many will express their views on the high or the low road we have travelled. Few will see beyond the noses of their own party orpolitical perspective.
As a patriot with no fixed political allegiances, who is uncertain who to vote for in the 2014 election, I’m afraid that we have too quickly sacrificed the power of unity that marked us as something special.
We claim to be following in the footsteps of uTata Madiba, but we’ve thrown magnanimity out of the window.
We’ve created an environment in which the acquisition of wealth by the few somehow seems to take precedence over the delivery of decent basic services to those most in need. And we have allowed a culture of entitlement and impatient anger to take root; those who do not receive what they feel they are entitled to,feel entitled to maraud and to loot and to destroy.
Instead of being able to celebrate 20 years of progress in forging unity and non-racialism, too many South Africans find themselves in utter anguish due to the high rates of unemployment and crime; due to the stories of ineptitude in our education and health systems; due to perceived widespread corruption, greed and waste – and due to grinding poverty.
This is not to blame the government alone; I think we are all to blame. I think that we are all guilty of taking our precious and hard-won freedom for granted. I think we under-estimated the task of reconciling our people in the warm afterglow of our magical first democratic election, winning the continental soccer showpiece and the rugby world cup, authoring our fantastic Constitution, and creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that became the talk of the world.
We took our eyes off the ball. The sadistic crimes we witness today, the shocking manner in which our men treat our women and children, the way we drive withutter disregard for others, the litter we throw in the streets, the manner in which service delivery protests degenerate into violence, looting and the wanton destruction of property, all are a reflection of our unhealed brokenness.
Thewidening gap between rich and poor reflects our unwillingness to share. Yes, we have succeeded in creating something of a welfare state, providing grants to millions of our compatriots in need. But we have not succeeded in effecting any real measure of the transfer of wealth, of the creation of the equitable society we dreamed we could become.
We don’t seem to realise that the price of building a more equal society is far lessthan the cost of dealing with the consequences of not having done so. When Isuggested at Stellenbosch University a few years ago that we seriously consider implementing a form of wealth tax, not as a punishment but as a means to reach out and demonstrate commitment to healing our country, I was roundly criticised by members of the white community.
INTO THE FUTURE
How do we ensure that the country we have built on the contributions of Jakes Gerwel and so many others succeeds?
1. Do not abandon the dream of a united and prosperous South Africa in which all have access to decent education and health, all enjoy a share in the country’s wealth, and the dignity of all is sacrosanct. This was the dream that sustained us as we navigated the final twists and turns on the road to democracy 20 years ago. It is the dream and the hope that Nelson Mandela embodied.
2. In working towards achieving this united and prosperous South Africa for all its citizens, respect the principles of democracy for which we collectively paid a very steep price. For instance, we paid dearly for the right to demonstrate and protest against perceived unfairness or injustice. But there are rules of democratic play, and the wanton destruction of property is not among them.
3. Principles are more important than political parties. It doesn’t matter which political party you support, do not lose your ability to decipher right from wrong. Do not lose your voice. Neutrality is no excuse. As I have explained once or twice before, when you remain neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. If you feel powerless to express yourself perhaps you should find another political home. The point is that when you get up in the morning you should be able to look into the mirror and – even if your nose, like mine, dominates the picture, or whether you are an elephant or a mouse – you should feel at ease with what you see.
4. When I was growing up my father used to say: Don’t raise your voice; improve your argument. But, for your argument to have any effect, you have to feel that somebody is listening. We need to develop a culture in which people not only feel free to express their opinions, whether or not they differ with those of the ruling party, but also feel that their opinions are being heard. We are all entitled to our own wrong opinions, my spouse likes to remind me! The tragedy at Marikana could have been averted had the protagonists not stopped talking and listening to each other. In the context of the service deliveryprotests in Cape Town, we should not allow the detestable tactics of the protestors to hide the fact that the gap in living standards in Cape Town is an abomination. It is the primary responsibility of our leaders – those elected at the ballot box and those representing communities – to lead us in the opposite direction of further stand-offs with the potential for violence and crime.
5. Make a difference, yourself, each and every one of you – preferably every day. It needn’t be enormous difference, and it needn’t be expensive. Perhaps you have heard of the young boy who spent his day throwing starfish that had been washed ashore back into the sea. For each three or four he was able to “rescue” the waves deposited another 30 or 40 onto the beach. There were so many starfish that his task seemed hopeless. Questioned about the usefulness of his actions, he responded: “It may be impossible to throw all the starfish back, but for this one starfish, it means a whole lot.” Imagine how many starfishes we could save if we all put our minds to it!
6. Finally, embrace the ideas of young people. Some of them dress a bit strangely but they are at a major advantage. Their hearts and minds are generally uncluttered by the anxieties of the accumulation of resources that afflicts older people. And they understand the transforming, technological, communication-rich world around them with greater clarity than the likes of us. Whenever I interact with young people I am stunned by the depth of their understanding as to how their parents’ and grandparents’ generations have led us to the precipice. They know that the world they areabout to inherit has already been virtually destroyed by the singular profitmotives of us oldies.
Jakes understood the power of the youth. Among my most abiding memories of him were during the States of Emergency in the 1980s. Jakes would call me to say that this or that group of students planned to march on campus in defiance of the rules against illegal gatherings, and could I come and help deal with the police. Of course, I didn’t actually have any influence over the police, but they did not like to arrest me because I was a church leader who happened to have been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
I would come rushing out to campus, all hot and bothered. We’d see the police gathering at the gates checking their gear. On the campus, itself, the tension was palpable, with student leaders preparing their peers to face what was really a brutal enemy armed not only with truncheons and rubber bullets and teargas, but also an array of laws that pretty much enabled them to beat people up, arrest them and throw away the key. In the midst of all this tension daar staan ou Jakes, in the centre of a knot of agitated people – a babble of Afrikaans, isiXhosa and English voices around him – looking as cool as a cucumber.
“A leader. . .is like a shepherd,” Jake’s boss was later to write in his seminal autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind.”
We thank God for the gift of people of the calibre of Jakes Gerwel when we needed them most.
God bless you.