March 5, 2011

My South Africa

A friend recently forwarded me the text of a speech given by Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, entitled "My South Africa." It is a wonderful homage to all the good in South Africa and you'll find it printed below. Just for some background, Jonathan Jansen was the source of big controversy not too long ago, when one of his first acts in Bloemfontein was to decree racial integration at student dormitories. What followed was a big uproar around the country, when a video surfaced, made by four white students, in which they mocked the concept of integration and severely denigrated the black housekeeping staff. Those students eventually faced trial but Professor Jansen announced that the university would withdraw disciplinary charges in order to promote reconciliation. This gesture, in turn, drew the ire of the ANC (governing party in South Africa).

I didn't follow the entire story back then but distinctly remember picturing this controversial Vice-Chancellor as a white guy, I'm not even sure why, but  maybe because he upset the ANC. In any case, I was very surprised to find out when trying to track down the source for "My South Africa" that he is black. Which just goes to show that it shouldn't matter, but it's hard to break old habits.

Here is Professor Jansen's beautiful speech:
MY SOUTH AFRICA BY JONATHAN JANSEN – RECTOR: UNIVERSITY OF THE FREE STATE
My South Africa is the working-class man who called from the airport to return my wallet without a cent missing. It is the white woman who put all three of her domestic worker's children through the same school that her own child attended. It is the politician in one of our rural provinces, Mpumalanga, who returned his salary to the government as a statement that standing with the poor had to be more than just a few words. It is the teacher who worked after school hours every day during the public sector strike to ensure her children did not miss out on learning.
My South Africa is the first-year university student in Bloemfontein who took all the gifts she received for her birthday and donated them - with the permission of the givers - to a home for children in an Aids village. It is the people hurt by racist acts who find it in their hearts to publicly forgive the perpetrators. It is the group of farmers in Paarl who started a top school for the children of farm workers to ensure they got the best education possible while their parents toiled in the vineyards. It is the farmer's wife in Viljoenskroon who created an education and training centre for the wives of farm labourers so that they could gain the advanced skills required to operate accredited early-learning centres for their own and other children.
My South Africa is that little white boy at a decent school in the Eastern Cape who decided to teach the black boys in the community to play cricket, and to fit them all out with the togs required to play the gentleman's game. It is the two black street children in Durban, caught on camera, who put their spare change in the condensed milk tin of a white beggar. It is the Johannesburg pastor who opened up his church as a place of shelter for illegal immigrants. It is the Afrikaner woman from Boksburg who nailed the white guy who shot and killed one of South Africa's greatest freedom fighters outside his home.
My South Africa is the man who went to prison for 27 years and came out embracing his captors, thereby releasing them from their impending misery. It is the activist priest who dived into a crowd of angry people to rescue a woman from a sure necklacing. It is the former police chief who fell to his knees to wash the feet of Mamelodi women whose sons disappeared on his watch; it is the women who forgave him in his act of contrition. It is the Cape Town university psychologist who interviewed the 'Prime Evil' in Pretoria Centre and came away with emotional attachment, even empathy, for the human being who did such terrible things under apartheid.
My South Africa is the quiet, dignified, determined township mother from Langa who straightened her back during the years of oppression and decided that her struggle was to raise decent children, insist that they learn, and ensure that they not succumb to bitterness or defeat in the face of overwhelming odds. It is the two young girls who walked 20km to school every day, even through their matric years, and passed well enough to be accepted into university studies. It is the student who takes on three jobs, during the evenings and on weekends, to find ways of paying for his university studies.
My South Africa is the teenager in a wheelchair who works in townships serving the poor. It is the pastor of a Kenilworth church whose parishioners were slaughtered, who visits the killers and asks them for forgiveness because he was a beneficiary of apartheid. It is the politician who resigns on conscientious grounds, giving up status and salary because of an objection in principle to a social policy of her political party. It is the young lawman who decides to dedicate his life to representing those who cannot afford to pay for legal services.
My South Africa is not the angry, corrupt, violent country whose deeds fill the front pages of newspapers and the lead-in items on the seven-o'clock news. It is the South Africa often unseen, yet powered by the remarkable lives of ordinary people. It is the citizens who keep the country together through millions of acts of daily kindness.
* This article originally appeared in Mango's inflight magazine. It is also posted on the website south africa - THE GOOD NEWS, which is a great place to bookmark if you're interested in South Africa.