Defy injustice – and invoke the courage to dance with your fear

By Pregs Govender 1 August 2019
While poor people are branded as thieves of money, electricity, water and land, the statistics reveal that wealthy corporations steal billions, says the writer. (Photo: File)

Corporate self-interest dictates the priorities of our politics, economics, media, education and culture… our beliefs about who we are, how we should live and what we can be. I want to incite insubordination against this in each of us.

This is an edited version of the Inaugural Lecture on Insubordinate Leadership hosted by UCT’s Klaus-Jürgen Bathe (KJB) Leadership Programme and the Poverty and Inequality Initiative.

This inaugural lecture honours our insubordinate ancestors – the 20,000 women of 1956 who defied the patriarchal, capitalist, apartheid state. The pass laws entrenched colonial dispossession and criminalisation of millions of black South African people. Generations after that march Steve Biko united us across apartheid’s ghettos of “African”, “Indian”, “coloured”, ”non-white” as black people fighting apartheid brutality and its strategy of divide and rule.

As Biko said: “We have set out on a quest for our true humanity and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize.”

Ordinary people from countries across the world, including Cuba, Zambia, India and Sweden, acted in solidarity and apartheid was declared a crime against humanity. The extent of that crime is yet to be fully comprehended by a world that does not recognise the genocides of the First Peoples of the world, committed before the genocide of World War II, by the colonisers of the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia.

Apartheid’s misogynistic police and army worked alongside the state’s institutionalised brutality including forced removals to apartheid’s equivalent of Nazi Germany’s ghettos – the Bantustans, townships and informal settlements – where millions died slow deaths linked to malnutrition, injuries from frequent mining accidents and preventable illness such as silicosis, TB and later HIV.

In our country as in all others, rape and sexual assault have been interwoven into wars of patriarchal conquest and colonisation, genocide, slavery, apartheid and capitalism. Religious texts justify violence against women and children. “God is male – male is god” is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Those taught to be subordinate are female and those taught to expect subordination are male. The world order mirrors apartheid and has deepened inequality and poverty. Economic, military and religious fundamentalism have increased vulnerability to misogyny, and rape and sexual abuse will affect an estimated one billion women and girls over their lifetimes.

Our first Parliament committed to transforming an authoritarian state to a participatory, accountable, transparent, democracy…to a people’s democracy. A new Constitution, laws and institutions committed to social justice, equality, dignity, freedom, non-racism, non-sexism and women’s rights. The abortion debate located sexual and reproductive rights within economic, political and social rights. Government committed to transform the budget from a gendered perspective and reports on gender-based violence tabled integrated strategies.

The apartheid budgets prioritised white power and privilege. The new economic policy of 1996 was drafted almost exclusively by white men, many of them consultants to the IMF and World Bank. The global trading system demands open markets for its hormone-injected meats (as the US did) and sources SA’s organic fruit and vegetables (as Europe does) because their own courts have ruled against carcinogenic products, as cancers have increased across the world.

Contrary to the promise, land redistribution and restitution have not been effectively addressed. Colonial wars often killed or removed insubordinate traditional leaders and replaced them with men of greed. Today, the Traditional Leaders and Khoisan Bill and the Traditional Courts Bill will, if enacted, reassert apartheid-era tribal authorities. Unelected traditional leaders will make decisions about land and mining without any meaningful consultation with the community and women will lose their constitutional right to gender equality. In Xolobeni, an Australian mining corporation has partnered with local traditional leaders against the people of Xolobeni, whose leader has been assassinated.

Apartheid-era homelands, townships and informal settlements remain places where mortality rates skyrocket and people continue to die of preventable causes; the places with the highest unemployment, hunger, homelessness, the least access to clean drinking or decent sanitation, basic services like street lighting, water, refuse removal or decent sanitation, and schools with pit toilets and without laboratories or libraries. This is where depression regularly ends in suicide and there is no place to run for women, girls, transgendered and gender non-conforming people.

The cost of winning universal franchise continues to be paid to those who own the world. While poor people are branded as thieves of money, electricity, water and land, the statistics reveal that wealthy corporations steal billions. Their illicit financial flows, theft of land, water and electricity falls below the radar of our consciousness of what a thief looks like.

Instead of addressing this crisis, the greed and corruption of yesterday’s leaders distract us from the fact that corruption is intrinsic to the global order. The countries that sold us arms in the infamous Arms Deal build in what for them are minor costs compared to what they make, of corrupting leaders. Britain, which sold us arms we do not need, sells arms to both opposing sides in Yemen’s bloody conflict.

While we are all distracted, Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, Johnson and other right-wing conservatives push the world towards fascism. Trump has stripped the façade of American politics to what it is and has always been – the power of corporates to corrupt and divert attention away from addressing the 43.1 million living in poverty in the US. In India, Modi came to power on corporate funding of 10.3-billion rupees. In just one month under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s own satellite monitoring system showed that corporate mining, logging and farmers destroyed more than 1,800 square kilometres of the Amazon rainforest, the lungs of our world. The impending destruction of humanity and our planet, presented by climate scientists, does not penetrate the thick wall of denial and inaction with devastating consequences for people who are poor, especially women.

The pollution of the Earth’s water and air, her plants and animals seeps into our bodies, causing cancer and other illnesses that claim millions every day. Corporate self-interest dictates the priorities of our politics, economics, media, education and culture… our beliefs about who we are, how we should live and what we can be.

I want to incite insubordination against this in each of us. Like you, I have felt the fear and hate of subordination land on my skin, course through my blood, unsettle my nerves…its paralysis, impotent rage and helplessness…In searching for answers I looked to and learnt from grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters and many who subvert traditional binaries, who live beyond label, who embody wisdom in their lives, their relationship to others and to the earth. There is wisdom in the everyday beauty of fragile complex beings grappling with contradiction.

We can reclaim ourselves by recognising that love is intrinsic to our being. From love we can invoke the courage to dance with our fear. The first founding value of SA’s Constitution is inherent dignity…our individual and collective birthright that underpins substantive rights. When we forget our birthright, as we often do, we can look in the mirror of our selves, of each other or let the rising sun remind us of the radiance we were born with. DM

The lecture that was delivered on Thursday 1 August, was based on Govender’s book Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination, Govender was an ANC MP from 1994 until she resigned in 2002 after being the only MP to oppose the Arms Deal in the Defence Budget.


In other news...

South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.

On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.

And on the other side are those who believe in the ethos of a country whose constitution was once declared the most progressive in the world. The hope that truth, justice and accountability in politics, business and society is not simply fairy tale dust sprinkled in great electoral speeches; but rather a cause that needs to be intentionally acted upon every day.

However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.

If you believe in supporting the cause and the work of Daily Maverick then take your position on the battleground and sign up to Maverick Insider today.

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