These words are being written from the veranda of a small house in an African valley, in the hour just before dawn. In the past week I’ve met people from Pakistan, Great Britain, Iraq, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries, as well as South Africans from all backgrounds. And they’ve all asked me the same thing: What’s going to happen with the Occupy movement?
“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills…”
We’ve known for a long time that local protest movements carry an international message. The people here in South Africa gave hope and inspiration to the entire world during their own struggle for political freedom. Yet some of them were surprised when I told them that Nelson Mandela’s release from prison was broadcast live on US television on that historic day, seventeen years ago.
Then, as now, genuine change seemed like an impossible dream. The apartheid regime had enormous wealth and was backed by some of the world’s most powerful corporate interests. The greatest governments in the world, including our own, were more than willing to ignore the regime’s worst human rights abuses in order to benefit from its trade. We were told that Nelson Mandela and his colleagues in the African National Congress were terrorists.
But, as Margaret Mead pointed out, a small group of people can change the world. Activists in the First and Third Worlds carried the anti-apartheid message through story and song, and soon their governments responded – first with empty symbolic gestures, then with more meaningful sanctions that cut into South African trade.
The ostracism may have affected the ruling class in this country almost as much as the sanctions did. Stung and shamed by the world’s censure, hobbled economically by its trade restrictions, the process of dismantling apartheid began.
Those who succumb to despair are forgetting the miracles of the early 1990s, when Communism fell in Europe and white regimes fell in Africa. Change is possible. We’ve seen it with our own eyes.
I’ve glimpsed the miracle here in South Africa since the moment our plane touched down at Oliver Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, a shining and modern architectural complex which is now the third-busiest airport in the world. It can be seen in the headlines, in the faces on the billboard advertisements, in the exchange of respectful courtesies among the races.
But the struggle goes on. I’m writing this from the same valley that Alan Paton described so beautifully in the first paragraph of Cry, the Beloved Country, the valley at the end of that road from Ixopo. The sound of chopping wood echoes over the hillsides as the mists lift over rolling valleys. The Zulu people, like so many other groups, still labor under conditions of crippling poverty. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has struck down so many innocent victims, even as the nation struggles to provide healthcare for its people.
The South Africans have an enormous job ahead of them. Ninety percent of the physicians in this country provide care to the wealthiest fifteen percent of the people. Most South Africans have no health insurance. Overall, the South African economy is as inequitable as our own, but the lower-end poverty is much broader and much deeper. Each of us who hopes for better things to come struggles with the greatest obstacle of all: despair.
“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear.”
Passengers flying from Johannesburg to Durban can look below them to see lush hills and rich beaches. They can also see clusters of what first seem to be trash heaps, then reveal themselves as habitations where human beings are still isolated from wealth and beauty in enclaves of degrading poverty.
Massacres in Kandahar. 45,000 deaths per year in the US from lack of health insurance. War, famine, disease, poverty. Meanwhile here in South Africa the questions keep coming, from residents of Pretoria or Lahore or Delhi or London or Durban or Sydney or Birmingham:
“Is the Occupy movement over?”
“Why were the police so brutal in California?”
“Can the protesters really make a difference?”
Some of the answers are still unwritten.
Political freedom has been won – partially – in some of the wealthiest and poorest nations. But there’s more freedom to won: Freedom to vote for candidates who speak for you, not their corporate backers. Freedom to learn. Freedom from illness and hunger. Freedom to work your way out of poverty and into prosperity.
Blatant corruption is rampant in South Africa, while subtler forms of it have turned US democracy into a division of Wall Street. Washington insiders cluck their tongues at Third World officials accepting bribes, then shrug their shoulders as another Treasury Secretary or OMB Director takes a high-paying job at Citigroup.
The struggle goes on – in Capetown and Durban and Pretoria, in Oakland and Manhattan and Los Angeles, in the hearts and minds of souls of people who fight despair and corruption in the cities, towns, and villages of the world.
The people in the villages around me, as well as their brothers and sisters in the cities and slums of South Africa, taught us all how to struggle and win against impossible odds. Why do we forget that lesson so often?
This week I’ve been given the gift of remembering: of remembering the victories of the past and the possibilities of the future, of remembering that our struggle is the world’s struggle and the world’s struggle is ours.
Dawn has risen. The mists have lifted on Mr. Paton’s beloved valley, a valley that’s seen victories he could only dream of – and, as its children fall victim to disease and death, has many victories yet to win. Clusters of village houses are scattered among the hills, their conical roofs pointing to a gray sky dawning with a new day. Will it be sunny or overcast, stormy or calm? It’s too early to tell. But the smoke from cooking fires is sending its wisps against the hovering fog.
It’s time to get up and go to work.