Honouring the 'unbreakable promise'
28 March 2008
On my wall in London is a photograph I have never grown tired of looking at. Indeed, I always find it thrilling to behold. You might even say it helps keep me going. It is a picture of a lone woman standing between two armoured vehicles, the notorious 'hippos', as they rolled into Soweto. Her arms are raised. Her fists are clenched. Her thin body is both beckoning and defiant of the enemy. It was May Day 1985 and the uprising against apartheid had begun.
The fine chronicler of apartheid, Paul Weinberg, took that photograph. He described crouching in a ditch at the roadside as the hippos entered Soweto. People were being shot with rubber bullets and real bullets. "I looked around," he said, "and there in the ditch next to me was this bird-like woman, who suddenly pulled out a bottle of gin, took a swig, then went over the top and marched straight into the moving line of vehicles. It was the one of the bravest things I've seen."
Paul's photograph brings to mind one of my favourite quotations. "The struggle of people against power," wrote Milan Kundera, " is the struggle of memory against forgetting." Moments such as that woman's bravery ought to be unforgettable, for they symbolise all the great movements of resistance to oppression: in South Africa, the Freedom Charter, Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trial, the heroism of Steve Biko, the women who somehow kept their children alive on freezing hillsides in places like Dimbaza where they had been removed and declared redundant, and beyond, the Jews who rose against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Palestinians who just the other day smashed down the walls of their prison in Gaza.
Unforgettable? For some, yes. But there are those who prefer we celebrate a system of organised forgetting: of unbridled freedom for the few and obedience for the many; of socialism for the rich, and capitalism for the poor. They prefer that the demonstrable power of ordinary people is committed to what George Orwell called the memory hole. You may ask how we can possibly forget when we live in an information age?
The answer to that is another question: Who are "we"? Unlike you and me, most human beings have never used a computer and never owned a telephone. And those of us who are technologically blessed often confuse information with media, and corporate training with knowledge. These are probably the most powerful illusions of our times. We even have a new vocabulary, in which noble concepts have been corporatised and given deceptive, perverse, even opposite meanings.
"Democracy" is now the free market – a concept itself berefet of freedom. "Reform" is now the denial of reform. "Economics" is the relegation of most human endeavour to material value, a bottom line. Alternative models that relate to the needs of the majority of humanity end up in the memory hole. And "governance" – so fashionable these days - means an economic system approved in Washington, Brussels and Davos. "Foreign policy" is service to the dominant power. Conquest is "humanitarian intervention". Invasion is "nation-building".
Every day, we breathe the hot air of these pseudo ideas with their pseudo truths and pseudo experts. They set the limits of public debate within the most advanced societies. They determine who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. They manipulate our compassion and our anger and make many of us feel there is nothing we can do. Take the "war on terror". This is an entirely bogus idea that actually means a war of terror. Its aim is to convince people in the rich world that we all must live in an enduring state of fear: that Muslim fanatics are threatening our civilisation.
In fact, the opposite is true. The threat to our societies comes not from Al Qaeda but from the terrorism of powerful states. Ask the people of Iraq, who in five years ago have seen the physical and social destruction of their country. President Bush calls this "nation-building". Ask the people of Afghanistan, who have been bombed back into the arms of the Taliban - this is known in the West as a "good war". Or the people of Gaza, who are denied water, food, medicines and hope by the forces of so-called civilisation. The list is long and the arithmetic simple. The greatest number of victims of this war of terror are not Westerners, but Muslims: from Iraq to Palestine, to the refugee camps of Lebanon and Syria and beyond.
We are constantly told that September 11th 2001 was a day that changed the world and - according to John McCain - justifies a 100-year war against America's perceived enemies. And yet, while the world mourned the deaths of 3,000 innocent Americans, the UN routinely reported that the mortality rate of children dead from the effects of extreme poverty had not changed. The figure for September 11th 2001 was more than 36,000 children. That is the figure every day. It has not changed. It is not news.
The difference between the two tragedies is that the people who died in the Twin Towers in New York were worthy victims, and the thousands of children who die every day are unworthy victims. That is how many of us are programmed to perceive the world. Or so the programmers hope. In the information age, these children are expendable. In South Africa, they are the children of the evicted and dispossessed, children carrying water home from a contaminated dam. They are not the children in the gated estates with names like Tuscany. They are not covered by the theories of GEAR or NEPAD or any of the other acronyms of power given respectability by journalism and scholarship.
It seems to me vital that young people today equip themselves with an understanding of how this often subliminal propaganda works in modern societies – liberal societies: societies with proud constitutions and freedom of speech, like South Africa. For it says that freedom from poverty - the essence of true democracy - is a freedom too far.
In South Africa, new graduates have, it seems to me, both a special obligation and an advantage. The advantage they have is that the past is still vividly present. Only last month, the National Institute for Occupational Health revealed that in the last six years deadly silicosis had almost doubled among South Africa's gold miners. There are huge profits in this industry. Many of the miners are abandoned and die in their 40s – their families too poor to afford a burial.
Why is there still no proper prevention and compensation? And although Desmond Tutu pleaded with them, not one company boss in any of the apartheid-propping industries ever sought an amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They were that confident that for things to change on the surface, things would remain the same.
For young graduates these days, there is a temptation to set themselves apart from the conditions I have described and from the world some have come from. As members of a new privileged elite, they have an obligation, I believe, to forge the vital link with the genius of everyday life and the resourcefulness and resilience of ordinary people. This will allow them, in whatever way you choose, to finish the job begun by Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko and the brave woman in the photograph. In a nutshell, it means standing by one's compatriots in order to bring true freedom to South Africa.
Those who led the struggle against racial apartheid often said no. They dissented. They caused trouble. They took risks. They put people first. And they were the best that people can be. Above all, they had a social and political imagination that unaccountable power always fears. And they had courage. It is this imagination and courage that opens up real debate with real information and allows ordinary people to reclaim their confidence to demand their human and democratic rights.
Oscar Wilde wrote: "Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue". I read the other day that the South African police calculated that the number of protests across the country had doubled in just two years to more than 10,000 every year. That may be the highest rate of dissent in the world. That's something to be proud of - just as the Freedom Charter remains something to be proud of. Let me remind you how it begins: "We, the people of South Africa, declare that our country belongs to everyone...". And that, as Nelson Mandela once said, was the "unbreakable promise". Isn't it time the promise was kept?