The Musings of a Decrepit
Preamble: Last Thursday, I visited the pre-school attached to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. When I entered the room, one of these precocious kids piped up, “’You are old!”. As they say, from the mouthes of babes. Well, there you have it; a decrepit old man stands in front of you. We oldies are notorious for repeating ourselves, telling the same stories even to the person who first told us that particular story. I lay no claim to academic ability. So be nice to me, even if you have heard me tell any story before; please laugh so as not to hurt my feelings.
Dear friends, I have been Chancellor of this splendid University for longer than you can care to remember. Just look at what is happening in North Africa, to Mubarak and Ben Ali and the ructions in Libya, Algeria, Yemen etc. So I thought to myself: “Hey, get out whilst the going is good, before they start toyi toying to get you out!” Do you want to be a Chancellor for life? Not on your life. Dear friends, it has been a great privilege to be associated with this outstanding institution, this former bush college that has seen an amazing transformation started tentatively under Dr van der Ross and coming to fruition under Jakes Gerwel.
Things sure used to happen in those extraordinary days of the 1980s. Jakes called UWC the intellectual home of the left; that required a lot of courage when the apartheid Government saw nothing funny in banning a Christian leader under their Suppression of Communism Act, when they saw reds under every bed.
I would sit in my office at Bishopscourt when I would get a call: the police are on the campus and are firing teargas canisters into the student residences. I would usually drive to find our campus under siege. Staff and students were quite amazing in their courage, facing riot police with vicious dogs. What you are enjoying now, a considerable peace and calm, was bought at great price. Please cherish it. When you are demonstrating for whatever reason, do not infringe the rights of others who may differ from you. Don’t disrupt their classes if they don’t want to join your demonstrations. My father used to say, “don’t raise your voice; improve your argument!’.
The freedom we are enjoying today was bought through the blood and sweat of many, many amazing people of all races, those who were given long sentences, those who were hanged, those who languished in solitary confinement for long periods, those who were tortured, those who went into exile, those who were detained and died mysteriously falling off chairs, slipping on soap while showering, and students and staff at places such as here, who put their lives on the line. Hey, a heavy price has been paid for you to study in peaceful circumstances. My friends, please don’t forget it, the price was exorbitant. Cherish this thing, hold it in high regard. Let us not spit in the faces of those stalwarts, of those who sacrificed so much. The greatest memorial to them is for you their successors we will reach for the stars because the sky is indeed the limit. Nothing can stop you becoming whatever you desire to be but yourself. Be the very best you can be – that is the most appropriate thank you to your brave predecessors.
It has been exhilarating; it has been a great privilege to be associated with this vibrant institution. Jakes said it would be a site of our struggle and that it turned out to be with a vengeance. It would invest resources to assist the most deserving but often the most handicapped through lack of money but especially through inadequate preparation for University. Programs were developed that would seek to make up such deficits. UWC provided some of the most outstanding personnel of our first democratic government under our inimitable global icon, Nelson Mandela. Jakes became his chief of staff as DG in the President’s office, and took with him gentle Dullah Omar, our first Minister of Justice, who was responsible for the legislation that brought into being the TRC. Kader Asmal went from here to become Minister of Water Affairs. No one knew that Water Affairs could be so exciting until Kader took charge. Bulelani Ngcuka also went from here to our first Director of the National Prosecuting Authority. Dr Skweyiya came from here as well. We could go and on. That is the measure of the greatness of our Institution’s contribution to the post liberation dispensation.
When Jakes left some of the oomph left UWC. I was scared then of reading the newspapers because we were so frequently there for the wrong reasons… yet another student protest, oh no. When do they study? Then Brian came and has taken this place to a new orbit. Just look at the new buildings that have been erected, the new programs that have been inaugurated and the links with international institutions that clamour to be linked to UWC. He has helped to raise the profile of our university significantly. We now even have a Desmond Tutu Chair in theology largely through the initiative and efforts of Prof Hans Engdahl. Then there have been the outstanding contributions of our academic staff, our administrative staff, our domestic and security as well as our ground staff who make it a joy to come to a tidy campus. Ah, and the students, the raison d’être of any institution of learning. What would we be without you? May I as Chancellor on my last legs request you to join me in paying a most richly deserved tribute to all those I have mentioned here with a rousing standing ovation.
Thus saith the Lord: no, I have not finished. That was only the preamble. You do remember that delicious old story? When the missionaries first came to us, we had the land and they had the Bible. Then they said, “Let us pray!” And dutifully we closed our eyes. When they said “Amen” and we opened our eyes, well they had the land and we had the Bible. No, we didn’t strike a bad bargain as some have sometimes averred. If you wanted to oppress to subjugate people, the last thing you should then place in their hands is the Bible. For this is the most revolutionary thing, so utterly subversive of all injustice and oppression.
Racism asserts that what endows persons with worth is a biological irrelevance such as skin colour. I used to say, imagine instead of saying that that University is reserved for whites, as used to be the case, we said it is reserved for people with large noses only, since I have a large nose. Just look at Zapiro’s cartoons! So if you had a small nose, then you had to apply to the Minister of Small Nose Affairs for permission to attend the University for Large Noses. Preposterous. Exactly what does size of nose or indeed skin colour tell you of any significance about anyone? It does not tell you whether he is kind or clever, ar anything, really.
The Bible says that every single one of us is of infinite worth because each one of us created in the image of God, whatever we are, tall, short, beautiful, ugly, clever, stupid, we are God’s carriers. Now that is a truth that is subversive of all injustice and oppression.
And that is what has informed my own witness, as one who has based my involvement in public affairs on the Bible, as one who has jaded my involvement in public affairs on the Bible which speaks of a God who is not even-handed. No, the God of the Bible is notoriously biased, biased in favour of the poor, the downtrodden, the despised and the voiceless. I used to say to white South Africans, ”You brought us the Bible and we are taking it seriously.”
Yes, of course, we have free choice, but once the God of the Bible catches you by the scruff of the neck, you have had it. The prophet Jeremiah said if he declared that he would not speak again in the name of God, then God’s word was like a fire in his breast. It is a like fire in the breast that we have felt. And so we have spoken into situations of injustice and oppression. Most white South Africans before the demise of apartheid believed I was really a politician trying very hard to be an Archbishop. They were surprised when I criticized our new democratic government led by Madiba. For instance, when they voted themselves a salary increase. Sometimes, many times, I have wanted to be circumspect, even to be silent, but it has not been possible and most of my utterances, no all my utterances, are inspired, driven by my love for God, and a passionate love for my country and for my compatriots. And so I condemned the pernicious Aids policies of a previous administration.
I love my country passionately. I believe we have the capacity to be one of the most wonderful countries in the world. We could be a truly compassionate country, where everyone was cared for, where no one went to bed hungry, where everyone mattered and knew they mattered whether they were poor and uneducated. They would matter because they are created in the omega of God and to treat them as less than this is evil and blasphemous. It is spitting in the face of God. We have shown our capacity in hosting one of the most successful Soccer World Cups and confounded the sceptics and surprised even ourselves. Ke nako! Feel it, it is here! Why are we not building decent homes for our people when we have shown we can build state of the art stadiums? Why are we letting our towns and cities deteriorate with poor maintenance and services, especially for the poor who are beginning to show their impatience and anger in nasty demonstrations?
I am fond of our President Zuma. He is affable and warm. But I do believe it would have been better for him to have been pronounced innocent by a court of law weighing the evidence rather through a dubious administrative act. And if indeed there is nothing to hide, the Government surely has nothing to fear from a judicial commission of inquiry into the arms deal. It is an unnecessary albatross to carry the huge doubts. Our country, with such tremendous potential, is going to be dragged backwards and downwards by corruption which in some instances is quite blatant. It may be that there is really nothing to worry about with the parole of a Shaik, but it must raise eyebrows when someone who was said to be at death’s door is shown playing golf. It is worrying when his close relationship to the President is put in juxtaposition. Perhaps the Gupta family would make all those lucrative deals anyway, and it is merely coincidental that the President’s son is a beneficiary. It may all be above board, but it is worrisome. I am sure it is all in order but it is disturbing that there are these seeming coincidences.
As we know, people are not fools. They notice things and one day they will explode. We have many very competent people in this country, people of all races, people who would be snapped up in other countries, people who love this country passionately, people who were involved in the struggle, people who are today being sidelined encase the first qualification is not ability, not calibre, but political affiliation. In a way this is as wrong as judging people by the colour of their skin. Let us remember that many of our heroes belonged to very different political formations. No single political group can lay claim to a monopoly of our struggle. Ours is a kaleidoscope. Just think of the Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko and the others. We must not make some of our people say, “Under apartheid we were not white enough. Now we are not black enough”. That way lies perdition. South Africa belongs to all who live in it.
Ours is meant to be a system of accountable government, where the Executive branch is held accountable by the legislative branch and a vigilant media. I think the party lists for selecting our representatives have served their very important purpose of ensuring representation for every conceivable grouping in the transition years. But we really do not want kowtowing sycophantic voting figures who are always ready to change their principles in order to stay on the lists. We must revert to the well tried constituency system. And we need a vigilant and fearless media, who have by and large served us well. There are enough laws to deal with miscreants. I am totally opposed to the proposed media curbs. Ours is an accountable dispensation. I must say I would need a lot of convincing to show that an expense of R100 million Rand for a youth rally of very questionable taste and intellectual worth was money well spent in the face of so much poverty, unemployment and homelessness. What is happening in North Africa is to remind governments everywhere that people are not fools. One day they will call rulers to account.
We have a fantastic country with amazing people of all races, think of such stalwarts as Neil Aggett, Sheila Duncan, Helen Joseph, Helen Suzman, Lilian Ngoyi, Ray Alexander, Margaret Ballinger, Nadine Gordimer, Albertina Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe, Beyers Naude, Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe, Nelson Mandela, Johnny Issel, Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Dullah Omar, Joe Slovo, Albie Sachs, etc, etc, etc. We showed during the struggle just how altruistic, how self-sacrificing we could be, how ready we were to do things for the benefit of others, not for self aggrandisement, for self enrichment… We can’t have lost those attributes. Hey, we can become a caring, a compassionate society where everyone would know he or she matters. That is the South Africa for which many sacrificed. Let it happen. As somebody famously said: “We can.” Yes, we can.