Opinionista Mike Abel 29 May 2017

A Defiant Nation

I’m full of hope. Where that will get me or us I’m unsure of right now, but one thing I’m entirely convinced of is we’ll either go down out-cold post one hell of a fight, or we’ll ultimately emerge victorious.

Those who would have us captured, silenced and fleeced hopelessly under-estimated our nation’s determination, resilience and resolve.

But where does it come from, this innate ability to bounce back and fight on?

I’m certain it’s entirely a factor of self-belief. Knowing one’s own, and our collective, inner truth. That we are far better this. That we, all good, decent, honest, hard-working South Africans, with and without jobs, won’t, on our watch, see Madiba’s vision and promise of 1994 be stolen, torn asunder and hijacked by thieves. Far too much pain, agony and fortitude got our nation to 1994. Too many people gave up their lives fighting for a free, fair and open democracy. Too many people built this country, fought colonialism, fought wars and fought apartheid, not just to let some high-placed low-lifes walk away with our country’s hopes, dreams and “the family silver”.

A nation and its people don’t just develop this level of defiance to a voracious and insatiable kleptocracy overnight. It happens over years, decades and even centuries. It becomes who we are as a people, we become hardwired to fight the good fight, no matter what. That is what these hijackers have misunderstood – and that is why they will lose.

I’ve been pondering where resilience and self-belief come from and in the process it’s led me to a fair amount of introspection. I’d like to share a memory and observations in this regard.

I recall my first day at Grey High School. I’d moved over from a co-ed, small Jewish School in Port Elizabeth called Theodor Herzl to go to Grey, attended previously by both my father and grandfather. I’d gone from having 25 in my class made up of 12 boys and 13 girls (all Jewish) to a class of around 148 boys, all white (given apartheid), mostly of the Anglican faith. I was one of just five Jews in my year.

Now, I was socially well-prepared for an Anglican school as most of my closest friends were Christians and my life-long best friend’s dad was a bishop. I had spent plenty of Sunday mornings in St Cuthbert’s Church – and probably as much time playing in the grounds of St John’s Church around the corner from my childhood home. So, little did I expect what my first day in this magnificent school would hold, as I walked down the long and imposing driveway towards this iconic and gabled institution.

At first break I walked up to three boys whom I knew socially from outside of school, when I suddenly felt a hard thump and heard a crack at the back of my head. Someone had thrown an apple full-tilt at me. I turned around and saw this boy sneering. I had never seen him before and didn’t even know his name. “Abel, you fucking Jew!” he shouted at me.

Other than having had regular fist-fights with my then rather trying older brother (there are just 18 months between us) I had never had a physical fight with anyone else, but something in me snapped and I lunged at this boy. While we were attacking one another on the tarred pavement, near the bicycle stands, he shouted that I had killed Jesus.

Needless to say, I had no particular recall of participating in this murderous event, as it had happened nearly 2,000 years before our little skirmish on these school grounds in Port Elizabeth.

But an interesting and shocking new thought had occurred to me. How many people believed, in the 80’s, that present Jews were somehow responsible for the death of Christ?

I wasn’t even entirely sure how past Jews may have been responsible, given that they too were entirely subjugated by the Romans – and Jesus wasn’t murdered in a side-street, the Roman leadership had crucified him.

So, my only response to this boy (I’ll resist mentioning his name) was, “what the fuck are you talking about?”. Thirty-six years later, I wouldn’t put my question differently. One thing of which I was absolutely certain was I had played no role directly, indirectly or otherwise in this ancient crime.

Another shocking thought occurred to me. The concern of “surely not even in Port Elizabeth?”. My great-grandparents escaped, in many ways, an apartheid-like Russia, Lithuania and Poland where Jews were persecuted and denied equal rights to freedom including a proper education and professional jobs. My Polish grandmother only arrived in South Africa at the age of 24.

So, our history in Eastern Europe was well known to me. As a teenager, I knew the fate of my grandmother’s aunts, uncles and cousins in Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers. And here I was, encountering brazen anti-Semitism for the first time. But I knew my own truth, I knew the struggle of my forefathers and of my grandparents, and I was not going to let this boy steal my dignity, my sense of self, and my excitement at being at this big and brilliant school. So, I fought back hard. It was the first and fortunately last such incident at Grey – and I went on to have a wonderful time there, but I never forgot it, and was ever prepared for a recurrence.

So, what’s the parallel between this memory and our being a defiant nation? Well, a nation is the sum of our parts. It’s the individuals and related stories, all 50 million of us, who create a collective. We’re all a bruised bunch, but that also makes us match-fit. We’ve never enjoyed true peace in South Africa other than under the glory years of Madiba and Mbeki. Since 2008 we’ve had it hard. That’s nine recent years of fighting scandal after scandal.

Regardless, we threw a world-class 2010 World Cup. We showed the world again, as with 1994, what we are capable of. We’ve won two world cup rugby tournaments since 1994 (and can again). We’ve seen a tiny boxer like Baby Jake take on giants, we’ve seen an unknown runner smash the 400m Olympic record, with an elderly woman as his coach. Indeed, we’re a defiant nation. A local comedian, born of a forbidden match between black and white, is today the celebrated host of The Today Show, and one of our most popular performers, now retiring, is a born Jewish White Zulu who captured the nation’s hearts during apartheid, as Juluka and then Savuka.

South Africans are a people not to be trifled with. We know what is good and right. There are incredible values that run deep in the rural hills and the urban streets. We are a nation of good people who will not walk away from the fight. Our former public protector, our judiciary, our opposition parties are not prepared to drop their fists. Our former finance ministers, deputy finance minister, Cabinet ministers, former presidents, nobody is backing down nor backing away, because we know who we are, we know our truth and we therefore say, “not on our watch”.

There are too many children to educate, young adults to create jobs for, an economy to build, services to deliver that even while the plug is out of the bath, we’re all frantically still trying to fill it. As recently as yesterday, a well-researched document came out clearly identifying many of the key players in the intricate web of State Capture. Those who have and are currently betraying the promise of Madiba’s South Africa, that of the world’s greatest statesman ever.

So, that’s why I have, that’s why you should have, hope. For as long as we know who we are, and fight for the country we want, we’ll still have a fighting chance. Regardless of the paid spin doctors from here and abroad, regardless of the bottomless (ill-gotten) funds of foreign nationals and kleptocrats, regardless of the propaganda machines masquerading as news channels. We know our truth, and that will ensure we remain a defiant nation, until finally we have brought this country back to who we are – and more important, what we can still become. DM

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