A recent Washington Post article tells the story of the 2575 km2 Chernobyl Evacuation Zone. Three decades ago the explosion at the now infamous Ukrainian nuclear power plant displaced nearly 100 000 people and left a ghostly, uninhabited desert-scape in its wake. Trees stripped bare protruded out of infertile soil; all animal, bird and insect life had been obliterated. No movement; no sound. Empty shells of buildings; crumbling homesteads; literally dozens of empty villages; a lifeless, apocalyptic wasteland. For 30 years, Chernobyl has represented humankind’s insatiable lust for more.
But now Chernobyl would appear to be trying to teach us a new and most remarkable lesson. According to biologist Jim Beasly, where once there was dust and nothing more, today the enormous evacuation zone is: “An incredibly large sanctuary for animals large and small”. Research reports reveal that out of the ashes of Chernobyl has emerged an enchanted forest complete with thriving animal populations; grey wolves, red foxes, wild boar, moose, deer, hares and racoon dogs. Many of these are meat eating animals that have sufficient food to survive and thrive. They have developed a resistance, not only to environmental radiation, but to radiation in their prey. Researchers heavily suited in masks and respirators say it is like a huge national park just with no people.
This story is miraculous yet unsurprising. You see nature – creation if you like – has regenerative power or resurrection wired into its very nature. The great paradox is that death brings life; the seed must die in order to germinate; the land must burn in order for new life to flourish; the rivers must flood for the floodplains to yield their abundant crops. Without Chernobyl there could be no enchanted forest.
And without apartheid there would have been no Mandela as we knew him; without pain there could be no Buddha; without separation from God there could be no Christ. Perhaps more accurately put, without darkness there would be no need for light.
This fills me with hope and enormous joy. I pray it does the same for you. Because in the midst of our own personal catastrophes – our own Chernobyls big or small – we can hold fast to the truth that light will always extinguish darkness; that not even a catastrophe of nuclear proportions could thwart the regeneration power inherent in the created world. Life will continue and even thrive where once there was disaster, pain and suffering.
Outside of our own personal lives, the same applies to our beloved country. We may be tempted to despair; to see the pain and suffering and wonder if we will ever be the enchanted forest we all dreamt of. Schools, trucks, bulldozers, tyres, homes; logs – burning, burning – everywhere we turn. Can anything good come of all this burning? Destruction of property; vitriol and hatred flying through the air. Lies, deceit, corruption, fraud, state capture. Can anything rise from these ashes?
Nature tells us that it not only can, but indeed will. It is all a matter of time and if we are able to rise above the ashes and see what will undoubtedly be. As the good book says: “For now we see only in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.” 1 Corinthians 13:12.
South Africa will not only survive but thrive – not in spite of but because of what is currently taking place. It will thrive because of what Jacob Zuma and all who resemble him, have done to us. How can we say this? You need only look at the giant leaps in progress we have made as a nation in the treatment and prevention of HIV to see that this is true. The truth is that it took Thabo Mbeki’s denialism – and the tragic loss of life that resulted – to mobilise us into a world leader in this field. Must we thank the man for this? Of course not. But we have risen from the ashes he left behind.
And out of our very own Chernobyl will emerge a new and better South Africa. It may take decades but it will happen. You see that is the way of the created world. As a collective we will be able to look back at this dark and depressing time; look back from our enchanted forest and say; “without that time, without those leaders, this could not have happened.” Will things get better soon? Probably not soon, but there is no doubt that they will get better.
Should this make us resigned and fatalistic? No, it should cause us to redouble our efforts to learn the lessons that will take us to that enchanted forest as quickly as possible. And once we are there – for heaven’s sake – let’s not make the same mistakes again.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.