This is an edited version of a speech delivered as the 2018 Ronald Bernickow Memorial Lecture.
Berni (Ronald Bernickow) lived his life fully, embodying and expressing the best human values. In all his fragile humanity, Berni was deeply loved. I dedicate this lecture to his children, Remi, Rory and Laila and to all our children… within and outside our families and across our world.
Shortly before he died, Berni used Bertrand Russell’s words to convey his “brief life philosophy”, as he did not have time to pen his own:
“Three passions governed my life… the longing for love, the search for knowledge and pity for the suffering of humankind.”
Russell did not subscribe to the Christian faith of his schooling, saying, “I never know whether I should say ‘Agnostic’ or ‘Atheist’.” In a world of misogyny, economic fundamentalism, militarism and religious fundamentalisms (including Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist), Berni would not pretend to believe when he did not.
As a teenager Berni joined the struggle when apartheid was unleashing its brutality against unarmed children and teenagers, killing hundreds and maiming thousands. Its divide and rule hierarchy of privilege was intended to buffer white rule against revolution. Biko united black students whom apartheid had categorised “Indian”, “Coloured” and “African”.
United Nations reports detail apartheid’s violence against detained children, the largest number in the world at that time.
“Some… were… as young as 13… one was found to be only seven… while a large number were between 12 and 14… They are beaten, given electric shocks…”
Berni’s contribution spans Mwasa, Gawu, Sactwu, the Workers College, the Bargaining Council and the CCMA. I would like to share a slice of that experience. In our 20s, we were inspired to join and transform the “sweetheart” garment unions, which merged to form Gawu. Gawu’s founding congress elected us to national office, as its Media and Education Officers – part of a committed team who developed an integrated organising, education, media and collective bargaining strategy.
The education programme was premised on connecting workers to the individual and collective power of their inherent dignity. The sweetheart union’s newspaper, Clothesline, used to focus on the Spring Queen competition during wage negotiations, distracting attention from the “peanuts” bosses paid.
Under Berni, Clothesline placed the living wage campaign centre-stage during negotiations, informing workers of their rights. Apartheid’s deeply entrenched fear and prejudice slowly dissipated as women workers were elected to leadership at all levels and workers embraced non-racism in united action. Workers mandated Gawu to merge with Cosatu’s affiliate, Actwusa, to form Sactwu. Commitment to workers’ leadership inspired Berni and I to continue working together, uniting unionists and academics, to turn the vision of a Workers College into reality, at UWC.
After 1994, Democratic South Africa’s Constitution upheld human rights. However, the global economic order entrenched apartheid’s capitalist system. This reduced human rights, including socio-economic rights such as water, food, health, medicine and education, to profitable commodities. Today, food corporations reap billions in profit, while SA faces rising food costs and one in four South Africans goes hungry.
Corporations patent medicines for diseases such as cancer, which are often developed by publicly funded institutions. Patents result in exorbitant prices and hinder access to safe, affordable generics. Across the world, corporations seeking cheap labour pit workers against each other. Tariff reductions, demanded by the international trade regime, flooded SA with cheap imports and SA lost tens of thousands of mainly women’s jobs. What happened to them and their families?
By 2018, over 30.4 million South Africans were poor, despite social grants reaching over 17 million people. According to StatsSA, the poorest are “children, black Africans, females, people from rural areas… household wealth held by the top 10% was 71%, while the bottom 60% held 7%”.
The SAHRC’s water and sanitation report revealed that “lack of safe transport, street lights and water and sanitation make women and girls even more vulnerable to misogynistic violence”.
Berni worked for a minimum wage to cover an estimated six million people, who are currently employed for far less. Yet millions who fall outside this minimum safety net will remain poor. Berni would have welcomed the media bursaries, established today, from worker funds for workers’ children. The facts about people’s lived reality seldom translates into consciousness of the prejudice that renders people invisible.
Cape Town’s drought led to water restrictions and queues that were widely reported. Yet, for decades, people in poor informal settlements had walked distances, queued, saved water and used less than 4% of the city’s water. Wealthy people, including the owners of global bottled water and beverage corporations, continued to use and waste disproportionate amounts of water. There was no call for corporate accountability for its use, waste and pollution of water. There is none for corporate pollution and destruction of the earth’s land, air, food and human beings.
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights recognises that “a social and international order” capable of realising human rights is necessary. It is time to fulfil the constitutional promise that children will develop their full potential… with a social and economic system that keeps them, their families and communities safe; provides homes with decent sanitation and shelter from the storms; fresh, healthy, tasty food and safe, clean water; quality healthcare when sick; sports grounds and community centres to play in, education that enhances potential… the freedom to be a child… in our country and across our world.
In the year and a half before his death, Berni’s cancer re-emerged with a vengeance and I was diagnosed with cancer. For my friend, “the true revolutionary guided by a great feeling of love”, I end with his favourite extract from Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination (Govender’s own book).
“The worst experience had sent me spiralling. Yet it had also deepened the journey within and awakened love from which courage flowed. Memory had surfaced and beyond it, a glimpse of the truth that none of us are fixed in heroic or despotic moments of history. Life, as it waxes and wanes, always provides opportunities for our humanity to emerge.” DM
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Pregs Govender’s writing, education and activism honour our individual and collective power of love and courage to be insubordinate to all forms of injustice. Govender is a former trade unionist, MP (1994-2002), SA Human Rights Commissioner (2009-2015) and author @pregsgovender
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