Maverick Citizen

LIFE AT 60 OP-ED

The tides they are a-changin’: A letter to friends, looking back and looking forward

The tides they are a-changin’: A letter to friends, looking back and looking forward
Mark Heywood. (Photo: Anso Thom)

Over these years, the sustained disinterest of governments and people with power and privilege in addressing the basic needs of most people in our society has drip-fed a populism that has now boiled to the surface.

Dear friends and fellow travellers,

On 7 June I turned 60. I was born in 1964, the same year Bob Dylan released The Times They Are A-Changin’

 

It feels hard to admit that three-quarters of my life and experience is over and that I am now in my twilight years. People tell you not to think that way; that there’s life after 60. Of course, there is – if you are privileged. But the quantum of living-time and the amount that’s left for me is a fact. 

Looking back, I realise that without ever intending or planning it as my “career”, I have spent the last 40 years engaged in struggles, campaigns and organisations intended to make society fairer, more equal and less deadly to the poor and marginalised. 

It’s been personally rewarding. Spiritually, that is. 

Materially, I’m part of the precarious middle class, which means I’m still better off than most. 

But, politically, I’m not so sure. 

Looking back over my birthdays across every decade of the 40 years of my adulthood shows with hindsight how much the world I thought we were making has changed for the worse — and is changing for the even worse – how far it has veered away from those years of hope that marked my youth.

It’s worth recapping the headlines to show how dramatic the change has been.

In June 1984 I turned 20 

That year found me studying at Balliol College, Oxford University, at the end of my first year, living in college but spending my days caught up organising solidarity in the early months of the year-long British mineworkers strike

Little did I know that the miners’ strike would be one of the decisive first battles Margaret Thatcher had picked against organised labour, particularly its power to dictate fairer, more inclusive societies. 

Balliol College (Photo: University of Oxford)

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher takes the applause during the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, 10th October 1980. (Photo by Geoff Bruce/Central Press/Getty Images)

It was a victory she and her ideologues needed if they were to unshackle neoliberalism (then an unknown and untested term) from the “post-war consensus” around welfare states and the progressive realisation of social equality. 

I had joined the Militant tendency, a Trotskyist scion opposing the Labour Party’s attempt to shift itself to the right. 

So my student life involved trying to make sense of sharply contrasting opposites: the beauty I could experience at dawn sitting under the big Beech tree in the Balliol Quad as the light gathered, compared with the days I would get on my bike and ride to the British Leyland car factory at Cowley (the working class part of Oxford) to try to sell copies of the Militant to car workers starting their 6am shift. 

1984 seemed a far cry from George Orwell’s 1984, a book that was much celebrated and commented on that year. Yet, it was a year of two rising tides, for freedom and neoliberalism, neither knowing where they were heading or how they would crash against each other. 

In South Africa, it was a year of mass revolt, especially in the Vaal Triangle. 

People were breaking free of the fear engendered by the apartheid state. 

In England, despite – or perhaps because of – the best efforts of Margaret Thatcher, it was a year of rising protest and resistance.

In June 1994 I turned 30 

That year found me back in Johannesburg (I’d come back secretly in 1989), barely a month after the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first democratic president. 

It was a heady and hopeful time. 

A civil war had been averted and a successful democratic election carried out against the odds.

Nelson Mandela was president. 

The wider world was in a period of rapid and revolutionary democratic expansion, with a revival of the idea that human rights and the rule of law should be at the centre of governance universally. 

Personally, the idea that my involvement in the struggle was over (or that I had done my bit) was reflected in the fact that I applied for a job teaching English literature at Wits University. I didn’t get it. 

Instead, I was recruited by Zackie Achmat to join the Aids Law Project at Wits. 

For the first time, I became immersed in a human rights issue that was directly about people – their freedom from disease, and their ability to live a dignified life, supported by quality public health services – and less about political freedom and ideology. 

Paradoxically, though, that was the very idea that neoliberalism was trying to emasculate globally. 

It also marked the point where I stopped thinking and organising as a Marxist and began articulating issues in terms of human rights, beginning a learning journey as a practitioner of constitutional law, the interim and later (after 1996) final South African Constitution particularly.  

In June 2004 I turned 40 

It was among the best of times (to be an activist). 

For me, the 2000s were marked by the lows and horrible losses of HIV/Aids, the highs (and lows) of building the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the struggle against President Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism and the deadly profiteering of Big Pharma. 

We formed TAC in December 1998 as the Aids epidemic intensified in South Africa. A few years later, over 700 people were dying a day, denied access to lifesaving medicines by our government. 

By June 2004, TAC was winning. But with a long way to go. 

TAC co-founder Mark Heywood. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) supporters marching to hand over a memorandum to the then Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and the then UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe at the International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2016. (Photo: GCIS)

In 2002 we had won a now-famous victory in the Constitutional Court and, under pressure from our continuing protests, the government had agreed to a national treatment plan that included access to antiretroviral medicines. 

The campaigns and court cases we initiated eventually saved millions of lives. Literally. They were demanding, rewarding and all-consuming. 

Our successes fed my beliefs in the power of organised civil society and protest, as well as my convictions about the rule of law and constitutionalism. 

In some ways, 2004 would be the high-water mark of what we thought was the new human rights-based world order that we had won in the 1990s. 

Read more here: Living in the 21st century: A letter to my children, and yours 

But. But. But… 

We were not paying enough attention to the less visible unknitting of ideas and practices of social protection and social solidarity that were being driven by the continuation of the neo-liberal project globally. 

Hard rains were coming. 

Polarisation was being cooked up as the antidote to solidarity. 

In June 2014 I turned 50 

By now I was head of SECTION27, a public interest law organisation I had dreamed up and co-founded with my colleague Adv Adila Hassim in 2010 and which had replaced the Aids Law Project. It had become a respected and successful organisation. 

2014 was the year a five-year-old schoolboy, Michael Komape, drowned after falling into a pit latrine at his school in Chebeng village in Limpopo. It was an unforgivable example of the democratic state’s failure to provide the most basic services and contempt for poor people’s dignity and lives. Michael’s death might have gone largely unnoticed if we hadn’t decided to take up the matter, seek out Michael’s parents and offer legal support. 

It would be a long, time-consuming legal and political struggle, which we would eventually win

Illustrative image of Michael Komape (Image: SECTION27)

Mark Heywood and Adila Hassim, two founders of SECTION27 (Photo: Anso Thom)

We didn’t see it that way at the time, but Michael’s death is symbolic of what the neo-liberal era was doing to erode poor people’s hopes of basic dignity and equality; hopes that had broken like a wave in the 1990s, and particularly after freedom in 1994. 

This was also a year of gathering resistance to corruption and what would later be known as State Capture, and the reelection of Jacob Zuma as president. 

Cosatu protesters in Johannesburg were unanimous in their call for then President Jacob Zuma to stand down with chants of Zuma must fall frequently heard throughout the day. (Photo: IHSAAN HAFFEJEE)

But, I remember too, how, by 2014, I was beginning to harbour doubts and ask questions I couldn’t answer about the malleability of society for good and the efficacy of the strategies and instruments activists were using. 

Despite the small victories and meaningful engagements, what felt more and more like a performative theatre of opposition by civil society began to give me less and less hope.

Read more here: Can civil society change the politics of South Africa?

Now it’s June 2024 and I’m 60 

Suddenly (or that’s what it feels like) I can count 40 years of political activism for human rights behind me, with many significant victories. I should feel content. 

Yet, politically it feels like the darkest of times.

Because politics and the hope that we shall overcome has been much of my life, it is the darkest time. 

With watershed general elections weeks behind us, South Africa seems to have transmogrified into the opposite of the promise “the struggle” had brought it to when freedom began its reign in 1994. 

On a personal level, it’s another wheel in my own life coming full circle. 

From risking personal freedom for the noble ideals of the ANC in the 1980s to seeing its electoral defeat in 2024– in one lifetime! It’s complicated! 

Politics has played out in a complicated way. 

Over these years, the sustained disinterest of governments and people with power and privilege in addressing the basic needs of most people in our society has drip-fed a populism that has now boiled to the surface. 

If it weren’t so tragic, it would be a fitting comeuppance to the elites. 

It’s tragic because it portends a breakdown of the state, and possibly even the Constitution. It’s tragic because the people and parties that have gained more power are proxies for everything but the interests of the poor. 

On an international level, the threat of war and nuclear war  – an existential threat that had kept me awake in my teens and put me on some of the great marches of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – is back. 

Read more at: ‘Damn you masters of war’: War over Ukraine threatens social justice globally

The horror of the genocide being perpetrated by Israel and the USA in Gaza, apart from the incomprehensible levels of pain it is inflicting, is evidence that the international human rights order – so carefully constructed – is as good as over. 

It’s proof (if proof were needed) that the world’s democracies and elites only ever had an opportunistic relationship with human rights and the rule of law, whilst that same rhetoric served their interests. 

On top of all this, the climate crisis – a notion completely unfamiliar to my youth in the 1980s (although the first warnings had already been issued by prescient scientists by then) – is a gathering storm that will rain on all our freedoms. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: We are divided, debilitated and even defeated

It’s funny, I feel like I’ve arrived back to the same sort of existential questioning and confusion that marked out my mid-teens, looking for a language that could both give shape to my feelings of alienation and my quest for meaning and hope. 

Those were the years when I found Samuel Beckett and Jean-Paul Sartre, and listened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, before being tutored in Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky, who replaced existential angst with revolutionary certainty. 

Like being reborn – pardon me, comrades, for I have sinned!

That’s where I’m stuck now. 

I truly don’t feel like I have the vocab any more. I don’t have answers; maybe just a few clues to follow. 

Social justice activism, the exo-skeleton on which I constructed meaning, purpose and hope, is badly fractured. Possibly terminally.

So what is to be done? 

I guess it’s too late to choose any other life. Bleak, big-picture aside, interacting with other human beings of good and kind disposition, and doing small and larger things that can empower people and communities, is still where I find the most satisfaction, learning, love and joy. 

For as long as I can combine activism with the things that are freely given – like love, the weekly Parkrun, the joy of birdsong in the morning and access to nature and the mountains – I really can’t complain. 

I can continue to hope.

The problems we face in South Africa and the world have been a long time in the making (hundreds of years, in fact), slowly accumulating, sharpening. 

I date the origins of our now-crisis to when the pre-Romantic poets first started expressing fear about the rise of capitalism and colonialism and its impact on the human psyche, nature and civilisation. 

Read more here: 2017, First Thoughts: Towards a Government of Poets

Since that time, capitalism has always been bad for our health. But today, the problems it has spawned have become extreme. 

Figurative and literal tipping points loom. 

The crises caused by capitalism are no longer a Jack-that-can-be-pushed-back-into-its-box, except perhaps through widespread authoritarian rule, which is where it looks like the world is going in the decades ahead. 

Fundamentally, the problems are also to do with our (bad) relationships with each other and with the planet we inhabit with millions of other species – the species we are rapidly destroying

So maybe, as we try to save ourselves from war, barbarism, climate collapse and elite authoritarianism, we need to start by looking into other people’s faces, accounting to and for ourselves.

At 60 I am lucky. 

I still have some money, a home, love, health, my bicycle, my books, and, consequently, hope. 

I still encounter people who fill me with admiration and energy. I believe there is far more good than bad. 

I think the vast majority of humans share and live the same values as I do. 

Millions are in revolt. Millions are experimenting with fairer forms of society. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be vulnerable and admit that, at this moment, we are losing.

And then find ways to win again. I’m in.

Love and peace,

Mark DM

  1. Trying to solve the puzzle through writing has occupied a lot of time in my life. Below and in the text of my letter I’ve selected a few of the pieces I’ve written that I feel best capture some of the soul-searching: 

Dare we disturb the universe? First thoughts for 2018

How much time have we really got – five years? 

Where’s your compassion? It may just save your life 

We shall overcome. Really? I’m beginning to doubt it but not giving up yet 

At this uncertain moment, can we free the people with music? 

You can also find some of my writings on my out-of-date website: www.markheywood.com 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gary Bing says:

    Yeah, as someone from the ANC said way back, he did not join the struggle to be poor … that is what one is up against. We go in eyes wide open …

  • Dave Gould says:

    Thank you Mark for a poignant telling of a life so well lived. You have done so much left and incredibly legacy, but the best part is you now get to rest and reflect. Yes, it’s tough out there, and so much still to do that you wish you had the time, energy and resources to do. But please celebrate yourself and your achievements, you have led a ‘big’ life. I turn 60 too in a few months, and am trying my best to rest, smell the roses and still find ways to make a difference. You will too.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    While I fundamentally disagree with the authors politics I have great admiration for what he’s done, doubtless at great personal sacrifice, to improve the lot of the poorest and least powerful people in our society. Sadly those are precisely the same people who have consistently chosen over the last 30 years to hire a government comprised of people who have consistently proven themselves to be focused largely on self enrichment and are therefore at least as responsible for the outcomes we are enjoying. Kleptocommunisting harder isn’t going to bring growth, employment and a general improvement in the standard of living.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thank you very much, Mr Heywood, for your lifetime of activism and your contributions. Very best wishes for your onward journey. Social justice activism is needed now more than ever, we need great creativity to develop more appropriate and nuanced economic and political models to address our crises.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thank you very much, Mr Heywood, for your lifetime of activism and your contributions. Very best wishes for your onward journey. Social justice activism is needed now more than ever, we need great creativity to develop more appropriate and nuanced economic and political models to address our crises.

  • Johan Buys says:

    The fastest way for the poor and disenfranchised to improve their lot in life is to vote for efficient and effective governments, whether they be socialist or capitalist ones.

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