Opinionista Ryland Fisher 13 May 2013

In praise of our ‘ordinary’ heroes

Our liberation was not won by a figurehead individual or party but by millions of unsung South Africans who each contributed in some way to bringing about change. They are valuable repositories of our history and their extraordinary stories deserve much greater attention and respect.

Often, when I have attended funerals and listened to people paying homage to the deceased, I have wondered why people are saying nice things about a person when that person cannot hear what they are saying. Surely, I find myself asking, they should have said these things when the person was alive?

I often tell friends that they should not wait until I pass on to tell me about the good (and the bad) that I have done in my life. Surely that would be valuable information that could help the person involved build on the good and try to eliminate the bad aspects of his/her personality and actions?

I am at an age now when I find that I am attending more funerals than birthday parties and, whenever one attends a funeral, it is a case of confronting one’s own mortality. I always reflect on my own life, the mistakes I have made (and there are many) and the good things that I have done (which are always not enough).

As the priest/imam/rabbi, family and friends of the deceased talk about the impact that s/he had on other people’s lives, I find myself thinking about the impact that the deceased had on my life and the impact that I have had on other people’s lives.

I found myself thinking about all these things this week as I watched the body of Alvin “Ara” Adams being lowered into a grave.

Ara, as he was known to most people, would probably never have qualified for a National Order from the president, but he had an impact on my life and the lives of some of the other young political activists in Mitchells Plain in the early 1980s.

He was deeply flawed and fell foul of the law several times in his less than 60 years, but in the heat of the anti-Apartheid struggle, he helped several of us, whether it was to give us a lift to an underground meeting or to help us find safe houses for comrades on the run.

I don’t know whether he did what he did out of an understanding of our struggle or because he was helping family and friends, which he saw as his duty.

I remember once swopping him my VW Beetle for his battered old Kombi so that I could transport some youth to a secret site where we were going to listen to ANC president Oliver Tambo’s January 8th message. It was important to us to listen to this message because we would get an understanding of what would be required in terms of the struggle that year.

Of course, afterwards when we had to leave the venue, the Kombi refused to start, despite us pushing it up and down the road, and I finally had to hitch a lift at about midnight to fetch my Beetle to transport everyone home in several trips. We did not have cellphones in those days, and there were no public phones near where we were, so it was difficult to call anyone to fetch us.

Ara, who had been married to my sister for a few years, was never directly involved in struggle but was always on the periphery. He was one of those who always attended political meetings to keep up to date with what was happening politically. He would never speak in meetings, but listened attentively. This did not mean he did not have an opinion, which he would express privately to me and others.

Ironically, the last time I saw him alive was outside the Rocklands Civic Centre a few months ago where National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel and local ANC councillor Jeremiah Thuynsma held a report-back meeting. The Rocklands Civic Centre was, of course, the venue where we launched the United Democratic Front 30 years ago with the support of many “ordinary” people such as Ara.

From our very brief discussion that night, I gathered that he had sorted out most of the issues he had had throughout his life, was now gainfully employed and living a reasonably stable life, something that is difficult to come by for so many people on the Cape Flats.

Last week, I learned that he had had a heart attack and died shortly afterwards.

There are many people throughout South Africa whose contributions to our freedom will never be acknowledged and whose stories will never be told.

In memory of Ara and others who have gone before him, I make a public commitment that I will try to tell the stories of ordinary South Africans whenever and wherever I can. Just about every South African, I humbly believe, has a remarkable story to tell.

The story of our liberation has unfortunately been linked to one political movement and, in some cases, even one individual. We need to start changing this perception and give proper dues to the millions of South Africans who played a role, no matter how small, in their own liberation. Many, like Ara, never joined a political organisation formally, but still played a role, even if it is perceived to be small and insignificant. DM

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