The transforming power of one
Where politicians fail, ordinary citizens can display extraordinary heroism
Hands up those who believe in the political process to deliver us from evil. Considering the ANC’s long and illustrious history, there must still be some… It’s true that hardly anybody in the chattering classes believes a single word spoken by the state. But ANC loyalists – albeit mainly the elderly and ill-educated in forgotten villages – can be relied on to keep the faith in all its glory.
Loads of us will be going to the polls forlornly, not expecting anything much to change for the better. Twas ever thus, here and elsewhere. Politicians tend as a breed to stand by their lies rather than their promises.
How astonished we would be if, for example, our rulers actually found the will and the means to conquer the dreaded crime wave that has grown into a tsunami of lawlessness. One of our worst economic handicaps, crime is the understandable preoccupation of those (including the international media) whose kith and contacts clutch the dollars, francs and roubles we sorely need in foreign investment of one sort or other. Call me cynical but I suspect that, even assuming such an important initiative as crime prevention were to be genuinely grasped in high places, it would founder on lack of resources like the skill, courage and vision that are demonstrably rare at the top of our political pyramid.
Part of the problem in the intractable case of crime may be an underlying conviction in the country’s post-liberation leadership that the people have suffered and are therefore entitled to redress by any means whatsoever. It is an aggrieved response – perilously close to vengeance, some might argue – which not only ignores the fact that most victims of crime are poor rather than rich but that crime robs the unemployed of untold opportunities as tourists stay away from our cities in droves.
Leaving so uncomfortable a psycho probe to someone higher up the moral ladder, however, we can’t just go on blaming others or wishing for miracles to improve our lives. What realistic alternatives do we have to inadequate political leadership? (Jacob Zuma recently assured Aljazera’s famous television interviewer David Frost that there was so little crime in South Africa that he could virtually guarantee its eradication by 2010 – gulp.)
How about the power of one as an option? Could the inspired intervention of individuals be better trusted to change our plughole prospects as a nation once we, the country’s citizens, acknowledge the overall inability of government to contain the forces that ravage our daily lives? I’m thinking particularly of South African youth’s tragic hopelessness, it being the primary source of crime in our midst – the result of widespread malnutrition, sub-standard schooling, as well as rampant sexual abuse and violence in homes where too many parents die from Aids and unemployment affects virtually everybody.
What if we stop the justifiable finger-pointing, on the grounds that feeling sorry for ourselves is disempowering, and ask instead who in the world is responsible for hungry, abused and abandoned kids once the political system has failed them. What if the answer turns out to be thee and me? And what if the power of one were to become the power of many?
Among Hollywood’s most successful themes is the feel-good story of one person reaching out to others against the odds. The celebrated heroism of Brockevich, Milk and Schindler might remind South Africans of home-grown champions who have taken on our own neglected challenges. For example, one priest, Paul Verryn, chose to offer protection to Zimbabwe’s officially ignored, Johannesburg-based refugees and in the process helped to humanise a nation. One professor, Jonathan Jansen, believes so passionately in the potential of unreconstructed white Free State students to overcome their inherited racism that he is prepared to dedicate his respected talents to a discredited university. One housewife, Ethel Mabala, took scores of anti-social street kids into her home, giving them the inestimable benefit of a loving family environment over many years. One doctor, Gareth Japhet, decided to counter the damage inflicted on continent-wide values by history at its cruelest: he set up Soul City, a wonderfully entertaining health and development communications organization that beams important subliminal messages to 45 million Africans in ten countries.
Psychological research collected over many years in many parts of the world shows that the care of just one individual – regardless of how that concern is expressed – can make all the difference to deprived people.
Indeed, there are many examples of South Africans and foreigners who go out of their way to be kind to the weakest among us. Two women in Jozi, both called Bronwen, come to mind as typical of the generous individuals who make a real difference to the lives of others – and without expecting anything in return.
Bronwen Biles, a busy expat Briton with plenty of plans to pursue on her own account, has spent years helping Zimbabwe’s refugees in grand and small ways. When she discovered a group of orphans who had crawled through barbed wire at the border only to be robbed of the clothing on their backs once inside South Africa, she cared for them as if they were her own. Whenever one of the boys had a birthday, Bronwen baked a cake and took it into the city centre, where the kids were living together in a dark stairwell. Her candle-lit celebrations, fun for everyone in the wretched refugee community, will have done more to validate three distressed and potentially destructive lives than even the medicines and garments she also provided. (The image of Robert Mugabe clutching ballons and stuffing himself with cake during his outrageously extravagant annual birthday bashes is one of the more grotesque manifestations of childhood deprivation).
Bronwyn Greene, a local artist and photographer, kept seeing a small boy riding around her condo yard on a pink bike that was missing a tyre. The sight bothered her for months until she stopped one day in the driveway and spoke to the child, whose father was the security guard living on the Killarney premises. His mother had died, the boy told her shyly. So Bronwyn, unmarried and childless though far from rich, decided to step in. First, she bought the kid a blue bike. Then she found a school nearby and paid his fees. Now, he comes to her apartment every day to eat and do his homework, returning in the evenings to his grateful dad. “The child has enriched my own life”, says Bronwyn – while her intervention has totally transformed his future.