The crisis of looting, rioting and death, which threatened to destroy us only weeks ago, now holds the promise of following another path down which lies hope and the opportunity to be better than we were before.
But, before we continue, let us not be naïve nor insensitive. The damage the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal riots caused in lost lives, property, jobs, and trauma for those who experienced it first-hand is incalculable and must never be downplayed. However, even as we continue to remember those terrible images of looting, of burning malls, of bodies lying in the streets and the smouldering war-like ruins left in the wake of the chaos, we see other scenes too.
We see people with their arms outstretched in a Durban street, catching a baby thrown to safety by her mum from a burning building. We see a man with no legs in a wheelchair with a broom sweeping up the debris in a looted street along with scores of others who have turned out to return order to our world. We see people driving across the country to deliver food and medicines to strangers. We see people reaching out to each other and through their actions they are telling the survivors of those days of anarchy that they are not alone. Their kindness says we are of you, and you are of us and together we will overcome this.
This is what makes SA such a crazy and wonderful place and it is those unseen bonds of ubuntu that bind us together that so many constantly underestimate whether they be politicians, civil insurrectionists, criminals, opportunists, or looters.
It is the reason why nearly 60,000 people have signed up for the #RebuildSA Volunteers Group on Facebook and are actively helping each other and it’s why people adopt the Siyabuya movement’s mission to help SA emerge stronger from the Covid-19 pandemic and it is also why we see taxi drivers becoming heroes!
We are resilient. Our resilience has been proven time and again, through crisis after crisis. After all, a people that could beat the evils of apartheid and its shameful legacies should never be underestimated. Resilience is in our DNA.
Nelson Mandela is an obvious example of the South African character. But there are many others in this nation of ours which has given birth to an astonishing four Nobel peace laureates and many other inspiring characters.
Think of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of passive resistance who famously said he was born in India but made in SA. It was in SA, in Phoenix Settlement which was at the epicentre of the recent violence in Durban, which forged in his mind the concept of satyagraha, the philosophy of confronting evil though a non-violence of the mind, that seeks neither a defeat nor victory but a “new harmony”.
We have complex stuff in our social genes. We have the forgiveness of Mandela and we have the satyagraha of Gandhi. We also have within us the tears of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as he shared the searing pain of witnesses at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and we have the non-violent and egalitarian ideals of Albert Luthuli within us too.
But we also have plenty of darkness in us. Let us never forget that either.
While we can cite the great characters of our history and our present, we should remember that these people, as much as they would be seen as the best of us, they are also not us. They may still inspire us but they will not solve today’s problems. That is up to us.
The last 18 months have planted new seeds of social solidarity like the Community Action Networks, as one example, which saw people reach out across previous divides to help others.
In these and other examples, we have seen that ordinary people are not hapless citizens whose only lot is to be acted upon by others. We have our own agency and we have shown through Covid-19 and we are showing in the days after the riots and looting that we can stand together and hold the line of hope.
Many people are scratching their heads as we see the amazing scenes playing out across our ravaged cities and neighbourhoods and wonder how all this came to be. We do not have to wait until the studies are done and the experts have analysed the detail, to contribute to the solution. Let us follow the examples of all the people already doing something to help, and give a hand, ourselves. Siyabuya! Rebuild SA!
Image: Alexandra township residents cleaning the streets after a looting spree in the area. Image by Antonio Muchave. Courtesy: The Sowetan.