Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Boesak strikes a chord


Dr Alan Boesak spoke deep into the heart of South Africa’s political uncertainties when he delivered the annual Ashley Kriel Memorial Youth Lecture this week.

The Great Hall at UWC, overflowing with more than 2,000 people, broke into rapturous applause when he warned against the kind of democracy “where we have the vote but are bereft of our voice, where the dreams of the poor have become the blanket of the rich and where justice for the poor is a line in a slogan but not the song of our hearts.”

The hall began filling up nearly an hour before the meeting was due to start and by the time it started, people continued flowing in attempting to find available space in the aisles.

He struck a chord with the audience of mainly former UDF activists when he said that for many who had sacrificed everything, “politics in South Africa has become a strange and frightening space” where people are “tragically estranged from the movement they love.”

The annual lecture jointly organised by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation(IJR) and the University of the Western Cape, attracted a cross-section of people from different communities suggestive of the non-racial character of the earlier movement launched 25 years ago. In the audience were also groups of young people from the schools in Bonteheuwel and surrounds where Ashley Kriel lived.

For the first time in five years, the local ANC leadership attended the event en masse. Seated in the front rows were not just the new Premier, Lynne Brown but a number of her political associates such as Skwebesi Swatsha(check), Garth Strachan and Max Ozinsky. Their attendance appeared to give recognition to the fact that they could not ignore the groundswell of anti-ANC sentiment in the province. It was also an opportunity post Ebrahim Rasool to be on display as a new leadership grouping.

Many of those who were present at the meeting privately admit that they do not see their way clear to vote for the ANC in the forthcoming elections. They were not attracted to any opposition party and would choose to stay away from the polls. Some argued that it was not a good idea to encourage people not to vote because this weakened democracy. But the foremost question for them was who do they vote for if they disapprove of the ANC’s conduct?

Dr Boesak did not mince his words when he spoke out against corruption, the lack of leadership accountability and the efforts of a few to squander a proud legacy crafted by many ordinary people across the country.

There was wild applause when he criticised the recent behaviour of some leaders who encouraged people to kill for the movement. “Not only is such talk totally out of place in our democracy, it is a shameless abuse of positions of trust, and shows a shameless abuse of positions of trust.”

Speaking out against ethnicity and racialisation of society, he brought the focus straight back to the original vision that had driven the democratic forces that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black or white.”

“In the final instance judgement will be given, not in terms of whiteness or blackness, whatever the ideological content of those words may be today but in terms of the persistent faithfulness we are called to in this struggle,” he said.
Judging from the applause, the thread of non-racialism remained a strong impulse amongst those gathered.

Interestingly Boesak did not single out any political leader except making cursory reference to Jacob Zuma not approving of the cry to kill.

Yet his critique of the post-Mandela leadership was apparent in his consistent message that South Africa’s problems were not predominantly ethnic. “Our problem is a problem of betrayal of the poor, of a loss of faith in the people, of a loss of vision for the nation. It is a problem of disconnectedness with the people, of greed and hunger for power, of self-deceit and mindless arrogance,” he said.

It would not do the speech justice to say it was vintage Boesak. It was and it wasn’t. It was in the sense that he referred to extracts of his speeches made 25 years ago. But it wasn’t in the sense what was on display was a much-less ego-driven Boesak. It was a perfectly crafted speech and a piece of oratory that will not be lost in the dustbins of history. He is a Boesak now that has come through his own pain and appears to have transcended his personal challenges to become again the voice of a non-racial vision for this country. Those who dominate the political discourse have pushed that vision deep down into a dark well of obscurity. Instead the attention of the nation is on which faction will win the election, what will this mean in terms of positions dished out and attacks heaped against the judiciary.

The mood at the gathering was a strong indication that there are many that are crying out for a refocus on the vision that had released the energies of thousands across the country. It will be interesting to see if Dr Boesak will be prepared to play this role on a consistent basis, not as a party-political figure but as a gifted orator that will keep the nation’s mind focussed on the direction in which it must move.

He has articulated a sentiment which is uppermost in many minds. By doing so he has strengthened the hand of those who opposed to the kind of ethnic mobilisation that we are seeing. “There are those who seek to establish levels of suffering, levels of pain and levels of disadvantage and upon that falsehood try to build new levels of privilege,” he said. “And no matter how they go about it, it always ends up with levels of colour. To narrow down our Africanness to an ethnic dimension, “Africans” becoming “ethnic” Africans is not only humanly degrading, but historically untrue and politically offensive,” he said.

Interestingly he encouraged his audience not to lay blame but suggested that the answer to the current difficulties “lies within ourselves.” “We can either succumb to the politics of delusion or we can stand up for the politics of hope,” he said. He called on South Africans to believe in themselves and trust their dreams of justice. “Our problem is forsaking our spirituality and forgetting our faith,” he said.

He spoke strongly against the mood of despair gripping the country. “Too many of us are despairing, mourning the loss of what we thought we had, bemoaning our democracy, blaming others and forgetting our own responsibility. “Let us wake up from mourning and unite this nation.”

He received a standing ovation from the crowd at the end of his speech. Not only had he not lost his ability to connect directly with the hearts and minds of South Africans but on display were flashes of political maturity lifting him out of the past years of self-pity. He too appeared to have ended his period of mourning and was now calling on others to do the same.

He spoke of a second chance, an opportunity to give substance to “the dreams we once had.” It is not immediately clear whether he was referring here to the Polokwane phenomenon or whether he was referring to the mood in the country to forge something different, to find ways to reclaim closed political spaces. It is too early to say. The incisiveness of the speech and the large audience that poured into the hall does suggest that what we are seeing here is a sign of a civil society crying out for revolt.


Anonymous said...

Great article - very inspiring! I am so glad Boesak is back. People are finding belief in their voices once again. We are products of the uprising and will stand up to injustice irrespective of the where it may come from.

eda said...