L’Enfant

I prefer to steer clear of confrontation. When Peter and I were younger, our social circle included academics, activists, unionists and ngo workers and there were many times when heated political debates raged around our dining room table. I used to find it quite disconcerting how intense people could become defending one position or another and since I seldom got a word in edgeways in those days (I am an introvert after all!), more often than not I would retreat into the kitchen to feed the firebrands so that, for a short time while mouths were full of food, peace could be be restored.

And now we have Trump. His regime has certainly brought out some very strong opinions and insults are flying left, right and centre (so to speak). I find it quite disturbing that someone in a democratic leadership position in this day and age should be so antagonistic and divisive. It seems to bring us all into such a negative, hateful space. My last post, Imagine, was written from a place of extreme grumpiness in reaction to stuff I was reading about Trump on Facebook. After I wrote it, I thought of when I was a child and my mother would tell me to ignore my brother when he was teasing me. “Don’t give him the satisfaction of knowing that he’s getting to you,” she would advise. Perhaps this is a better way to deal with armchair, social media pontificators.

Since moving to the country I’ve also learned that:

It’s possible to entertain contradictory ideas – to see what it feels like to inhabit them. When different ideas seem incompatible, don’t rush to reconcile them or choose between them if the choice isn’t obvious. Be hospitable to them as you would to different guests at a party.

Barbara Ann Kipfer

However, I do find it difficult not to bridle at the extreme conservatism of Trump and his supporters. I also believe that:

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Protest by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (November 5, 1850–October 30, 1919), from her 1914 book Poems of Problems written at the peak of the Women’s Suffrage movement and just as WWI was about to erupt. Hear Amanda Palmer read the poem here

I am so proud, and envious, of my daughter and her husband for joining in the Women’s March in Washington, DC. I would love to have been there, to experience the coming together of so many people, united despite their diversity. I think it exceeded even their wildest dreams – more than 500,000 people in DC, more than 3 million people worldwide.

This, to me, is what democracy is all about – the right to protest, to make one’s voice heard. It is such a fundamental right that I can’t understand why some of us who have it, disparage it.

I remember protesting against the apartheid regime when I was a student at the University of Natal, lead by Fr Michael Lapsley (the university chaplain) before he was expelled from the country. He later became a member of the ANC and a chaplain to the organisation in exile. In 1990, three months after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, he was sent a letter bomb by the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), a covert death squad of the apartheid security forces. He lost both hands and the sight in one eye in the blast, and was seriously burnt. (The CCB was also responsible for the assassination in 1989 of David Webster, a colleague of Peter’s and a friend.) While protesters remained on the campus we were safe but anyone who marched beyond the gates was arrested and held in detention without trial.

That was the late 70’s. In 1985 the first State of Emergency was imposed in South Africa, the year that Kiera was born. By then Peter had left academia to establish a rural development non government organisation (ngo) based on the University of Natal campus and I was working for the Career Information Centre, an ngo based in the Ecumenical Centre alongside anti-apartheid organisations such as Diakonia, Black Sash, Legal Resource Centre and End Conscription Campaign. The day that the State of Emergency was declared casspirs actually rolled down St Andrews Street, parked in front of the Ecumenical Centre and the army took over the building. It was quite scary at the time – a lot of activists were rounded up and taken away. Eventually we were allowed back in and work resumed.

When Kiera was 3 years old, I left CIC to run the Educare and Training Centre at Natal University. By then things were really hotting up politically, with KwaZulu-Natal being a particularly violent province as ANC and Inkhatha Freedom Party supporters frequently clashed with each other. I remember one incident when I really feared for my life. The second State of Emergency had been imposed and I had been asked to take a foreign TV news crew to visit Groutville, a township just north of Durban and the home of Albert Luthuli. We got there fairly late in the afternoon and already I was twitchy because apart from there being a State of Emergency curfew, it really was not safe to be out after dark as Groutville had been the scene of some very bloody clashes. At the time we were working with the Groutville Development Committee to establish and support educare centre / crèches in the area and I had been asked to introduce the news team to community leaders so that they could be interviewed. It took ages for the interviews to take place, the cameras were rolling as the sun was setting and all I could see in the distance, through the haze of smoke as evening fires were being lit, were the casspirs moving in. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Finally I managed to persuade the news crew that it really was not safe for us to be there and we got out in, what I felt, was the nick of time. That evening, after a few drinks around our dining room table with the crew and adrenalin pumping, I decided that the life of a foreign correspondent in conflict areas was for me. I never did, of course, follow that path but The Year of Living Dangerously became my favourite movie for a long time after.

By the late 80’s and early 90’s the country had reached boiling point.

One afternoon, the police gave chase to a group of UN students who had gone on a march in protest against the State of Emergency. Despite being on university property, the police open fire with teargas. In panic the students scattered in all directions, some of them in the direction of the Educare Centre. No problem to the police, they simply fired teargas into the playground. Fortunately, we had been warned that the police were chasing the students towards us and we were busy shepherding all the children indoors when this happened. It was pandemonium and very frightening for all concerned.

But one didn’t give up; no matter how bad things were, the activists kept going, civil society kept mobilising and, in the end, the apartheid regime was brought down. Protest is not an end in itself, it is the catalyst for change – I’m keeping fingers crossed.

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2 Responses to L’Enfant

  1. Vicki McGeary says:

    Well written my friend and so true . Miss my ol’ neighbours

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