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A Requiem of Hope for comrade Jessie Duarte

South Africa

OP-ED

A Requiem of Hope for comrade Jessie Duarte

The late ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte at the ANC’s engagement with the Phoenix, Durban community in the lead-up to the November 2021 local government elections. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

Thank you, comrade Jessie, for instilling in me and in many others, a sense of ‘reasonable hope’ for our organisation and for our country. Your legacy of reasonable hope based on your clarity of our failures and our successes enable all of us to pick up your spear and continue your work-in-hope, and in belief that the work we do will lead to the healing we need.

The news of the passing of comrade Jessie Duarte came as a shock to many of us, and leave us all with a deep sense of sadness for a woman of courage, who spoke her mind freely, and whose contribution to the continuing struggle for women to be given their just place in society, for workers to have their rights respected, for the poor and destitute to be uplifted out of poverty, and for a South Africa and Africa that is stable, prosperous and at peace with itself.

It has left me thinking of what her life and legacy meant to me, and to all of us.

Comrade Jessie may have been short in stature, but she cast a long shadow within which so many of us were seeded and blossomed into political consciousness and service to our people. But there are also many who bemoan the fact of her passing, and worry about the impact of her passing will have on our beloved movement, the ANC, which is undergoing probably one of the most difficult times in its history that’s more than a century old.

It made me reflect on what comrade Jessie represented to me in the ANC — just this… reasonable hope. And the only way that I can explain what I mean by this notion of reasonable hope, is to share an aspect of my own personal story and how Jessie’s example instilled in me that hope for ourselves and for our country. Because my journey to “reasonable hope” has its roots in an area of healing that haunted me the most — my sense of “survivor’s guilt”, and this is a heavy cross that I bore for many years.

You see, somehow I had survived apartheid South Africa: I was shot at, but they always missed. Countless others were not so lucky and died in a hail of bullets.

I was beaten up by the apartheid police, but I didn’t lose my life like so many others.

I was imprisoned and detained in solitary confinement, but it was for a relatively short time compared to the many years that people like Nelson Mandela spent in prison. And I walked out of there relatively unscathed with scars that healed in time, while others were electrocuted and severely tortured and remain maimed physically and mentally.

But these experiences were not confined to myself only — my mother was harassed by the police to such an extent that she had to be briefly institutionalised, but she left there and carried on with her life. 

Now comrade Jessie had all of these experiences and countless more, but she was able to pick herself up and continue with the struggle with renewed vigour. And I would look at her and marvel at her sheer tenacity and resilience. Once, I asked her how she was able to keep going, and she answered shortly: “Our people need us”. And that, for her, was reason enough to continue.

What that meant to me was that her commitment was fuelled by the hope of our people for a better life, a hope that burnt brightly in her, and that remained with her until her final days. 

Right now we live in a world where many have lost hope. We see the impact of Covid on the economy and loss of jobs; the rise of rightwing governments; increasing acts of terror on innocent people; a rise in human trafficking which is really just a form of modern slavery; increased levels of gender-based violence; refugees fleeing their countries that are in turmoil; conflict and unrest; and in countries like Sri Lanka where I served as High Commissioner less than two years ago, a social movement rising and a government fleeing. And in many countries, there would be issues that need to be addressed — perhaps a flawed democracy, an unequal society, and women who are still regarded as second-class citizens…the list continues.

And in the ANC, we see an organisation that is going through its own painful challenges and its own transition.

There is no doubt that our country, like many others, requires healing of one sort or another. And this work of healing that we are called upon to do, in a country and a world that is at odds with itself, cannot be ignored, because it impacts on us and how we do our work, either with a sense of hope, or a sense of despair. 

We know that we can only be effective facilitators of healing the wounds caused by acts of corruption, of inequality and of poverty if we ourselves are able to observe the world and all the negative things that are happening, and not succumb to helplessness and resignation. Because as “wounded healers” ourselves, we are not immune to despair and pessimism. And yet the work that we are doing means that we have to recognise the areas of challenge within our own country, and within ourselves, and still seek out and acknowledge the positive, see our problems as real and solvable, and create what Kaethe Weingarten calls “reasonable hope”.

I want to invite you to consider how this concept of “reasonable hope” might be a way in which we can look for the positives in our country’s progress, and so help to create hope and a sense of active agency to push for change with those we work with, as we seek out the positive as well as the negative.

We need this country assessment, because as wounded healers we are called upon to make our own contribution that will help heal our country, and we cannot do that from a place of pessimism and despair.

Because we are also called upon to channel our people’s frustration, their sadness, their anger into active work that will impact positively on those aspects of society where there are challenges.

Because unless we do this, the work that we do at the level of the personal to hold on to “reasonable hope” will be de-linked from the level of the political where we need to work even harder than ever before to restore hope among our people.

Linking the personal with the political allows us to find and create opportunities that will make us all less pessimistic and less despairing. This is what we are called upon to do now — for ourselves and for those that we are working with — to instil a sense of reasonable hope that can help to build a bridge towards healing, instead of a fence of despair and helplessness.

The work that we are required to do now requires us to maintain a sense of reasonable hope, and instil that in those that we work with. And to remember that the future is not only open, it is by its very nature uncertain. But above all, it is influenceable. I am reminded of a wonderful piece written by Clarissa Pinkola Estes called We Were Made for These Times, written at the height of the pandemic. She wrote:

“My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilised, visionary people. You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breath-taking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practising, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement”.

She continues:

“In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails. We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater? Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good”.

She ends with:

“There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate. The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbour and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for”.

And so my reasonable hope for all of us is that we hold on to hope while doing the work that needs to be done to heal our country, and for those of us who are part of the ANC, to heal our organisation.

Because reasonable hope, like Ubuntu, is relational. It happens between and among people where it is held and shared. And as that community of reasonable hope grows across our communities and our country, it becomes part of a galvanising energy that will lead to healing and change at a personal and a political level — and to concrete action for fairness and justice where it is needed. And this is something that we all need.

I want to end off with a quote from the poet Warsan Shire, who came from a refugee background, and who says:

…dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere

As for me and that heavy cross of survivor’s guilt that I had carried for so long? Well, the harder I work for change, and the more I maintain a sense of “reasonable hope”, the lighter that cross has become. Some days I am working so hard for change that I forget it was ever there, and other times when I read about and see the challenges that we have in South Africa it comes back again. But it comes back much lighter, cause I know that the work I do is tangible and measurable and makes a difference. And reasonable hope is really how Emily Dickenson describes it best in her poem:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —

Thank you, comrade Jessie, for instilling in me and in many others, a sense of “reasonable hope” for our organisation and for our country. Your legacy of reasonable hope based on your clarity of our failures and our successes enable all of us to pick up your spear and continue your work-in-hope, and in belief that the work we do will lead to the healing we need. DM

Ruby Marks is South African Ambassador to Benin.

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