Don’t Turn and Look Away – Stand and See, and Act

As I get older, I find it increasingly difficult not to turn and look the other way.

I find it harder and harder to bear witness to the suffering of people and creatures and our planet: The decimation of forests, the poaching of endangered animals, the neglect and abuse of babies, the lack of education of our children, the ravages of extreme poverty and the rank unfairness of excessive inequality. I used to be able to look at all this and it used to enrage me to the point where I would act.

But recently I have found myself less and less able to keep my eyes open. I have found myself turning away. In fact, I think this could be a very neat description of privilege: The option to turn away.

At times like this I need a good dose of Pink Floyd. They remind me that turning away is no way to live. This is a Momentary Lapse of Reason. This is the Dark Side of the Moon.  They remind me that turning away can never be an option.

Be reminded too – and enjoy! Watch the video here

On the Turning Away – Pink Floyd

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won’t understand

“Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away”

It’s a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting it’s shroud
Over all we have known

Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud

On the wings of the night
As the daytime is stirring
Where the speechless unite
In a silent accord

Using words you will find are strange
And mesmerized as they light the flame
Feel the new wind of change
On the wings of the night

No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away
From the coldness inside

Just a world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away?

Inequality the Real Time Bomb

There is a very small lad that begs at the stop street outside our Estate on the North Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal. He is that small because of his severely contorted feet and legs that he drags along the tar whilst heaving himself forward on his crutches. He is 16 years old though he looks much younger and at the same time very old.

As I come and go from our estate, I wonder how a lad like this comes to be in the position he is in; body broken; future non-existent; a desperate human being. But to be totally honest, for me – a member of the privileged class of our country – he often becomes simply another demand albeit heart-breaking, on my wallet. How often I have returned from my day and recoiled as I saw him. With the greatest will in the world, I get so tired of the poverty; the sickening stench of inequality; just too many car guards, too many beggars, too many unemployed people, too many drunkards and drug addicts. One cannot possibly keep up. This country can be overwhelming in its lack. But I am so fortunate – so “blessed” as we might say – that I get to go to my home at day’s end, have a nice whiskey and a hot meal and blot out all that lack from my mind. And in truth we live constantly in the tension caused by obscene inequality. It is just a part of our everyday reality and our collective psyche has been seared numb; we look but we don’t see; we listen but we don’t hear; we smell but we wind up the window and put on the aircon. But it is simply too dangerous to continue responding in this way – or is it? Suddenly, a firm capitalist favourite comes to power and the air suddenly smells sweet again. We drink it in and we toast the future. And the little lad at the stop street is less of a frustration somehow. We buy him a pie and a Coke. Now everyone is happy – the post-Zuma vibe is euphoric. The Rand strengthens – awesome! The stock market goes up – hooray! Unemployment will almost certainly decline along with poverty and inequality and crime – woohoo! The NHI is still on the cards; nice idea but…; Free higher education and tax increases to support it – now hold on a moment, it’s getting hot in this kitchen. Let’s rewind a little to all that good stuff can’t we? Expropriation of land without compensation – now stop right there you are going way too far! That’s never worked and it will destroy our economy and it violates our rights and we will go the way of Zimbabwe and who knows who had land stolen and when anyway. Our fear runneth over. But we have missed the point totally – again: the economy is not the point – dignity is the point; humanity is the point; equal opportunities; long overdue redress – that’s the point. Our little lad at the stop street, what does he care about the economy? After over two decades of broken promises – what do millions of South Africans care? What do I care? I care just enough to sacrifice the cost of a pie and a coke. This is no longer good enough. In response to the emotional-more-than-economic issues of our time: land expropriation without compensation, free tertiary education, the NHI – we might consider not so much what we might lose – but the lost; those people who do not know what it feels like to live a dignified existence let alone a privileged one. Perhaps we could see – really see – a lad with contorted legs eking out no more than a pathetic existence; a family whose umpteenth shack has been destroyed by fire; a mother – unemployed and destitute – caring daily for her 15-year old Down’s Syndrome daughter on a grant of no more than a few Rand a day. Perhaps we could see the classroom in which 150 learners get packed; see it; hear it; smell it; taste it. Not just put up our protectionist, pseudo-academic arguments for why attempts to right the wrongs – the evils – of the past, will fail. Perhaps we might not turn first to fear-filled racist rhetoric; parrot the endless “look what happened to Zimbabwe” nonsense. Might we not ask how can we help to restore dignity and well-being to people? Might we not ask how we could possibly contribute to a constructive dialogue around how to bring our people out of poverty and dispossession; how to make land expropriation work? Might we not ask these questions before we ask how we can safeguard our pension/get out of this place/protect our land? Finally, if we imagine that land expropriation is the most dangerous thing for our economy and our country at large then we aren’t paying attention. Inequality is the real time bomb. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

Holocaust & apartheid: same side of the same coin

Recently, constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos wrote an important piece on the controversy surrounding the old South African flag that was hung in a Sea Point bar.

He was clear; the old South African flag should be destroyed for good along with other relics of apartheid such as the inclusion of Die Stem in the national anthem. De Vos stopped just short of comparing the old South African flag with the familiar red Nazi flag with its chilling black swastika. I must admit that I understand why he steers clear of this association. However, as I consider it more, it seems that it would be justified on the basis that both images represent the beliefs of one group of people who believed they were superior to another group of people and acted on that belief. So why do we skirt this comparison when debating apartheid and its iconography? Perhaps it is out of a deep and justified respect for the millions that lost their lives during the holocaust. Perhaps we conclude that fewer black people died during apartheid than during the holocaust and therefore the link between these two criminal regimes is unjustified (does fewer lives lost make evil less evil?). Perhaps as a white South African I just can’t stomach the link. But such a link needs to be made and discussed simply because we hold the holocaust up as an ultimate low point in humanity’s recent history (as we undoubtedly must).  Yet if we hold it so lightly that it becomes an event beyond compare, then we run the risk of using it to lessen and even dismiss other evils and our complicity – silent or active – therein. Of course, at this point we must question why the world knows much more about the holocaust than, say, the 1994 Rwanda genocide that saw eight hundred thousand people slaughtered in just 100 days. African genocide and other human rights atrocities on the continent go comparatively unremembered and un-immortalised in art, film and literature. And coming back home, was the Jewish life lost during the holocaust more valuable than the black life lost during apartheid? Was the displacement of the Jewish family during the holocaust more wicked than the displacement of the Black South African family? Was the physical and psychological torture of the Jewish person ‘eviller’ than the torture of the Black person? If we put ourselves into the shoes of either oppressed person – the Jewish holocaust victim or the black apartheid victim – the answer must surely be ‘no’. This is because we have brought both atrocities down to their most basic level; individual human pain and suffering. Now, evil is evil . Now things take on a different perspective: I dare not avoid the comparison in case I diminish people’s suffering – in this case, our own people. Now the comparison becomes useful and even necessary if we are to begin the process of taking full responsibility – at the soul level, not just the head level. Because let’s face it, Germany has not built itself up from post-world war nothingness into a great powerhouse by asking: can’t we just move on from all that holocaust business? They face their demons – with humility and dignity – through the many museums and memorials they themselves have erected – on the sites of the concentration camps themselves – so that they never allow themselves to forget what they did and their capacity for evil. We have not done that yet because we still don’t truly believe that what we did was evil; not holocaust evil anyway. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.