A month ago I was asked to speak at a conference to offer my ideas on how we go about creating a better world. The request came the same week news broke of the canonisation of Archbishop Oscar Romero – a man I first learnt about five years ago during my post-graduate studies sharing an apartment with a student from El Salvador who had a picture of the archbishop on her wall. I was curious as to who this man was because his name had also briefly come up in our international human rights law class.
In explaining the importance of Romero my room mate, simply told me that Romero is to her what Mandela is to me. But after learning about him and his service to the world – he simply became my Romero too – a man I greatly admire in his own right. The recognition of Romero that week became the inspiration for my address. My answer on how we can create a better world is that we can start by teaching young people about ordinary people who have done extra-ordinary things like Romero – we can teach them about the virtues of service, bravery and sacrifice – values which at some point in my life I had also lost sight of.
Prior to pursuing my post-graduate studies I was a law clerk for Justice Edwin Cameron at the Constitutional Court and prior to that I had worked for one of the top law firms in Sandton and needless to say my CV was looking good. As I saw it my responsibility was to reach heights my talented but uneducated grandfather never dreamed of, to see worlds that my immobile grandmother never saw – to be in the elite boardrooms that had doubly excluded my mother. My mandate was to make up for a history that kept my people in one place by going everywhere and doing everything.
My generation was raised to excel – hence the fixation on education, on proper English accents, on the big houses and big cars. All markers that would show the world we had arrived. I am part of the generation that was young enough to test drive freedom to its limits without the burden of history that weighed my parents and grandparents down. However, there was something very hollow about this sense of freedom.
Then came the beginning of my awakening. After a conversation with Justice Cameron about my future plans. I think he must have realised just how caught up I was in my own self-importance which prompted him to ask with concern “what are you going to do for others?” No one had ever asked me that before – I was embarrassed because I did not have a ready answer. People had always asked me what I did for a living, they were enamoured like I was by accolades and titles that it never occurred them or to me to ask a question Martin Luther King junior defined as life’s most urgent and persistent question – “what are you doing for others?”
Here was a man with a laundry list of accomplishments, a Justice of the Constitutional Court, a Rhodes Scholar, an author and a global icon hailed by Nelson Mandela himself as one of South Africa’s new heroes and still all of these things were not about him – it was about serving others. I had to recognise that if I have had success, I have also had good luck — and with luck comes obligation. Justice Cameron taught me that excellence without service is self-serving and vacuous. I was living in a bubble like so many of my peers which poses a threat to our collective progress.
I have come to learn that if not caught early, self-obsession can lead to worse traits such as treason. Our collective future is not threatened just by the rise in self-obsession but more dangerously – it is threatened by treasonous leaders. Our country is reeling from the news of the worst kind of treason – treason from within. The old but ever urgent caution from Cicero is instructional in this moment in our democracy, that a nation can survive its fools and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. Traitors moving freely amongst us masquerading as public servants in the very halls of government. Trusted public servants subverting the law and greasing their pockets with our hard-earned money is treason from within and the betrayal of the South African tradition of service and sacrifice that enabled them to occupy the positions that they are using today to illegally enrich themselves. What is at stake is more than the heist of banks but the heist of our future. We have lost our way, how do we course correct?
First, change requires that we shed comfort. Romero used the power of the church to speak up for the peasants of El Salvador who were being oppressed. Prominent political figures urged him to stop. He refused. He used his Sunday services to decry what was happening in his country. The archbishop had made his plea in a Sunday service broadcast on the radio: “I implore you, I beg you, I order you, in the name of God: stop the repression!” History is changed by acts of courage. Romero lent his life to denouncing the military government for its campaign of violence against the poor. As the archbishop read the word of God from the alter a gunman fired a shot to the heart. An archbishop murdered at the altar for defending the poor.
Romero’s life stands in contrast to what we are reading about in the news today. We are standing at a crossroad – either change or go deeper and deeper into the muck until there is nothing left. The true extent of which ego, tribalism and greed has gripped the soul of our country from the head down has been laid before us by commission after commission. We are at a crossroad which requires us to be brave.
The bravery that spurred Romero to take on a military. A bravery that emboldened Winnie Mandela to stand in between her people and casspirs invading the townships. The bravery that urged students to demand free higher education at a personal cost to their own ambitions. That bravery that insisted that Justice Cameron come out and live as an openly gay HIV+ man. Change is not brought about by the half-hearted rather by those brave enough to go the distance.
In preparation for my address I listened to one of my favourite commencement speeches by author, Michael Lewis titled: Do not eat fortune cookies. That’s the other way we can change our country for the better – by keeping our hands out of the cookie jar. The gist of Lewis’ speech to the graduation class of 2012 was that they should not forget how lucky they are and the obligation that comes with that.
To make his point Lewis relayed a story about an experiment a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department had undertaken. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating.
Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it enthusiastically with drool at the corners of their mouths.
Michael had this to say about the experiment: “All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. Some of us feel that we deserve the jar. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.”
A sentiment echoed by Obama during his Mandela Centenary Lecture- “There’s only so much you can eat. There’s only so big a house you can have. There’s only so many nice trips you can take. I mean, it’s enough. You don’t have to take a vow of poverty just to say, ‘Well, let me help out and– let me look at that child out there who doesn’t have enough to eat or needs some school fees, let me help him out. I’ll pay a little more in taxes. It’s okay. I can afford it’.” I mean, it shows a poverty of ambition to just want to take more and more and more, instead of saying, ‘Wow, I’ve got so much. Who can I help? How can I give more and more and more?’ That’s ambition. That’s impact. That’s influence. What an amazing gift to be able to help people, not just yourself.”
Martin Luther King Jr said that everybody can be great because anybody can serve. “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
When you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something. When we observe what’s taking place here in our country we have to stand up and speak out. And get in good trouble. The great country we want to bring forth begs the question “will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and sacrifice?” DM
Vin Diesel's real name is Mark Sinclair.