This morning I received a ‘friend’ request on FaceBook: I don’t really “do” FaceBook although, yes, I know, this blog will be posted to my FaceBook page. But bear with me.
The request was from someone I haven’t seen or heard from in, oh, I’d say more than thirty years. We were at varsity together, in the seventies; she went on to join the armed struggle, was detained and, if I am not mistaken, tortured and held in solitary confinement. I’ve followed her career, at a distance, over the twenty or so years since the end of apartheid and the beginning of democracy: she was, as I recall, at one point involved in monitoring conditions in the prisons service – poetic justice – and now has a very senior position in government, something important, to do with women.
The issues that all of this raises are never far from my consciousness, quite honestly: the awareness of what others did, during the struggle against apartheid – people like Jenny. How much braver they were, and she was, than I could ever imagine.
Bravery was one part – another of course was the question of violence. My own position was, and is, frankly morally ambiguous – not something I’m proud of, but something I’ve come, uneasily, to terms with. Like many others, I accepted the case for armed resistance, but I couldn’t see myself personally bearing arms, or blowing things up – let alone blowing up people (not that she did). Instead, I evaded military service, at a time of universal (white, male) conscription, taught in black schools in the Transkei, worked for an anti-apartheid NGO and, when liberation came, threw myself into policy work and research in support of the new government.
I guess I had it easy. But there were many like me, friends, acquaintances, people of my generation, who became teachers, civil rights lawyers, activists and community workers, trade unionists, who worked for very little reward in NGOs and grassroots organisations, rather than join the white, corporate, mainstream. We enjoyed the benefits of being white, undoubtedly, even though we hadn’t sought them, and in many respects didn’t want them: still, we made a choice, and our choices were, I’d like to believe, morally at least a little more defensible than some others.
Looking back, my admiration for Jenny and those like her is candid and undimmed. But my regard for those who made what contribution they could is equally genuine. You knew where people stood, in those days, and that mattered.