PROUDLY SOUTH AFRICAN: ESSA, DULLAH, AND US
By Dr Allan Boesak
Honourable Judge Siraj Desai and the Board of the District Six Museum,
Family of Essa and Dullah, Friends, Brothers and Sisters:
What a privilege and honour to join you today in rejoicing in the life and work of two such remarkable and outstanding South Africans, in life friends to all of us gathered here this afternoon: Dullah Omar and Essa Moosa. And what an entirely proper, and absolutely well-deserved gesture from the District Six Museum. Thank you!
As a rallying cry, the words “Proudly South African” have, it seems, lost their glitter; for too many of us perhaps, it is now the meaningless slogan of an airline that has become a perpetual problem rather than a proud symbol. It is, for too many, something we sneer at on the airplane when the food comes, or when our flight is so late it made us miss something important at home. It does not help if I tell those compatriots that flying on any United States airline is infinitely worse. They can always find another reason for their irritations.
For those South Africans, “Proudly South African” is a bitter-sweet joke in light of the incomprehensible levels of corruption at our parastatal enterprises, government departments and state entities, offering us no succour at all during the ongoing, mind-numbing days of the Zondo Commission and its shocking revelations. The mere word “Bosassa”, every time it is uttered, has been stripping us of too much of our rightful pride, it seems. More than just a symbol of corruption, or an indication of internal cannibalism, we now know how cankerous, how endemic it is to our entire body politic.
I think it is better to not mention the word “cricket.”
But today, in this place where sacred memories are kept and honoured, and where hopes for the future are nurtured, we are honouring two persons who rightly and righteously have given meaning to the cry, “Proudly South African.” For what is it that makes a people great? What does it mean when we are able to stand and fight for what we believe in, to be mown down but not blown away by the forces of evil? What is it when we struggle and fall, and stand up to fight again, to cry through our tears, “the struggle continues?” What does it mean when we are able to grab history by the scruff of the neck, wrenching it from the hands of the powerful and the mighty, turning it around, placing it with confidence in the hands of the people, and see justice triumph? To me, that is what it means to be proudly South African.
And it all comes together in the lives of these two friends and comrades. For me, both in personal terms and as comrades in the struggle, they personified and defined what should be unabashedly striven for and held up as the gold standard for our lives and the life of the nation: patriotism undefiled by cynicism, comradeship elevated by companionship, friendship purified by fire, political commitment leavened by personal integrity, love for our people girded by love of compassionate justice. That is what it means to be “proudly South African.”
When these two men died, we felt deeply, tragically, and radically diminished. How shall we become whole again, we asked; how shall we continue without them, where will we find someone to replace them? And looking back over our most recent past, we realize with a sense of shock that these were not idle questions, asked in a moment of deep sorrow and loss. These are some of the most relevant and urgent questions facing us today.
Essa and Dullah, separately and together, were such a large, commanding presence in our struggle for liberation, in the life of the nation, and in the lives of the countless people who found in them a comrade, a counsellor, a friend, a source of strength, and a brother. In ways we have known for as long as we have known them, and in ways we are only now discovering since their passing, and are sure to discover in the years ahead, Dullah and Essa have deepened and elevated our struggle, gave sense to what we were doing, and why we were doing it, provided direction and guidance, helped us discover the deepest purpose of our lives. Both of them taught us not only to know that we are in a struggle, but why we are in that struggle.
Essa Moosa and Dullah Omar were extraordinary human beings in their own time. They are even more so today. Some people say they live for the struggle. That is something we all understand and respect. They say they are driven by passion for the struggle and that passion is exclusive, single-minded, and one-dimensional. In that passion the ends are all – means do not matter. In that passion all attention is focused on what is sometimes called the “end-game”. Pain, sacrifice, even death, are not wilfully ignored or trivialised, but rather reduced to historical determination, political inevitabilities, unavoidable outcomes. Loss is calculated to serve the greater good, and therefore could be turned into possible gain. For the struggle.
But in some incredibly moving, and convincing way, Dullah Omar and Essa Moosa, each in their own way, were not like that. Not only were they – in practical, political, strategic ways – at the heart of our struggle; without them, it always seemed to me, the struggle would not have had a heart. Essa and Dullah were entirely inside the struggle, but for them the struggle was not merely about goals and ends; not simply about tactics and strategies; outcomes and calculations. For Essa and Dullah, the struggle was always about the people – their plight and their pain, their fights and losses, their hopes and dreams, their rights, their aspirations. They never turned the people’s sacrifices into slogans or the people’s dreams into political commodities. They counted the tears of the mothers, they gathered the fears of the fathers and the cries of the children in the greatness of their hearts, and this made these two comrades into the formidable foes of injustice we all knew. Essa Moosa and Dullah Omar clothed their passion for the struggle in the combative compassion for the people.
That is extraordinary.
The struggle made no sense without the people – this they knew; it had no meaning and no future if it did not carry, and cherished within it the hopes of the people. They believed that without compassion the struggle had no heart. Their love for the struggle was unthinkable without their love for the people.
That is extraordinary.
Over the years, thousands came to them for help not just because the people knew they would find help, but because the people knew they were loved. Thousands did not find it strange or unbecoming to call upon them day and night; not because they could pay them, but because they knew they were loved. And because they knew that, parents knew they could trust them with the lives of their children, and young people knew they could trust them with their dreams. To all the human rights they fought for, they added one more: the people’s right to trust their leaders, and they knew that trust had to be earned. So they set the example.
Thinking of our recent history, and looking at global politics and what is strutting around on the world stage, we now understand better just how extraordinary that is.
For Dullah and Essa, the struggle was not simply about what the people needed; instead, they asked what the people deserved. They knew that if we worked merely with the people’s needs, we make them dependent on the powerful who first caused that need and then determined how that need should be responded to. That, as Adam Small put it, would have made the struggle a form of begging. If we asked what the people deserved however, we honour their lives and their sacrifices, we honour their aspirations and their humanity, we honour what a just and merciful God meant for them to have, namely a life of freedom, justice and fulfilment; and choices. In that way we also honour their dignity and their agency.
Essa and Dullah truly ubuntified our struggle.
In my long relationship with both men, I saw them become genuinely distressed when they saw wrongs they could not right; an injustice they could not fight or change; an indignity they could not rectify. How we need such noble distress today. Noble, because it is a distress not about themselves but about others, the vulnerable, defenceless, powerless others. Today we are more likely to find distress about some form of entitlement not being satisfied, about greed uncovered too soon, about self-interest too prematurely thwarted, or about power exposed as abuse.
All of you have known these two comrades. All of you at some time or another, have marvelled at their humility. Fortunately, that is a quality shared by some others we know as well. But I have discovered that even their humility was unique: it was not a humility that paralyses, because it feeds on false modesty and unacknowledged fears. It never extinguished the quiet fires of outrage against injustice. It showed itself in the gentle audacity of hope; in the unassuming persistence that might shall not prevail, in the insistent determination that the voiceless shall be heard, the powerless shall find strength, that justice shall triumph.
Their humility did not stifle or smother their righteous anger against oppression. Rather than make them slink into the safe corners of silence, it made them raise hell. It also made them raise pertinent, important, and inescapable questions.
I thought about this as I was reading that great African American scholar, activist, and Pan-Africanist, W.E.B. DuBois. In 1957, six years before his death, in The Ordeal of Mansart, Book One of his still fascinating three-part work, The Black Frame Trilogy, W.E.B. DuBois posed a series of questions that, already challenging in the struggles of his day, would become increasingly so for the times that followed; ours included.
“How shall integrity face oppression?” he asked. “What shall honesty do in the face of deception? Decency in the face of insult, self-defense before blows? How shall [courage] and accomplishment meet despising, detraction, and lies? What shall virtue do to meet brute force?”
These are questions, we are discovering, that were not only pertinent to the situation in the United States, from where DuBois was writing and where Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and the black masses of America answered them so magnificently in the Civil Rights struggle. DuBois’ voice has been, and is still calling to us, everywhere, in every generation. Even if we did not consciously think about DuBois, (as much as we did about Franz Fanon, for example), these were the very same questions our generation were faced with, and were called upon to answer. They have grown in urgency, these words; became immortal words that challenge the very core of our being, the decisions we make about the most urgent matters in life, the way we face the global struggles for justice, freedom, equality and dignity in our day. Indeed, they determine the way we embrace our humanity, for how we respond will tell us what kind of human beings we are, the depth of our commitment to a humane, just, and peaceable world. Dullah Omar and Essa Moosa not only heard these questions, they asked them of us and of themselves, and they answered them, each in their own way, for generations to follow.
The world of imperial domination in which we live today, in the words of Helmut Gollwitzer, pastor of the Confessing Church and resister against the Nazi’s and speaking of his own times, is a world “shaken by deadly convulsions.” Let’s think about this for a moment. The combined wealth of the world’s richest 1% overtook that of the other 99% in 2016. More than half of the wealth in the world was then in the hands of just 62 individuals, more than is owned by the entire 3.5 billion of the world’s population. But this is what Oxfam said in 2016. That is now old news. The year 2017 had scarcely started and we had to revise our statistics. In January 2017 Oxfam reported that the situation was much worse: just 8 white men own as much wealth as half the world’s population. One in nine people do not have enough to eat and more than 1 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day.
This year Oxfam reported that in 2018 billionaire fortunes grew by $2.5 billion a day while the 3.8 billion of the poorest half of humanity saw their wealth decline by 11%. New billionaires were created every two days between 2017 and 2018, while every day 1000 people die because of lack of access to basic, affordable health care. And just last month AfriAsia Bank reported that 3,000 of South Africa’s riches billionaires live in the Paarl, Stellenbosch Franschhoek triangle, amidst some of our country’s worst poverty. And South Africa is today the most unequal society on earth. Essa and Dullah would have been outraged.
In January 2017 the United States and the world witnessed a spectacle many were convinced they would never see, and all over the world misogynists and homophobes of every stripe, creed and colour; white supremacists and unashamed racists from New Nazi’s in Europe to revived apartheid defenders in South Africa and new apartheid creators in Israel arise emboldened. Predatory capitalists, worshippers of money and destroyers of the Earth have rejuvenated joy; war mongers and the makers of drones, cluster bombs, barrel bombs, land mines and all kinds of deadly chemical weapons rejoice in the temples of profiteering as they see their fortunes and stocks rise even higher this year.
This is a world shaken by deadly convulsions.
I am not even speaking of the death toll of hundreds of thousands in the terrifying, endless wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and at least three other Muslim countries caused by an unquenchable thirst for oil, hunger for power and senseless Islamophobia; of the millions of refugees from North Africa, Syria and other war-torn and economically devastated places. Neither am I speaking of the more than 10,000 refugee children who have gone missing on the borders of European countries or even inside those countries where the hostile systems put in place there have exacerbated their refugee situation and buried their plight under mountains of xenophobic hate disguised as bureaucratic red tape, and drowned their calls for compassion in the battle cries of a renewed, racist, European Christian nationalism.
In the context of the ongoing struggles for freedom, justice and peace – in Africa and the Middle East (think of the incredibly brave young people of Sudan); of LGBTQI persons and women under serious physical, political, and spiritual attack; of indigenous communities to preserve or regain a way of life that would be life-giving to all of creation, or Palestinians who in their struggles for justice, freedom and dignity have become the measure of our sense of moral and political responsibility at this point in our history; of those peacemakers who have the courage to stand up against the greed and callousness of warmongers, whether they are in corporate board rooms or political chambers, in scientific laboratories or presidential offices – our mortal enemy is still the lack of integrity, decency, honesty and courage in our politics and in the workings of our societies.
There is much to critique about the policies of our government, the failure to execute properly those quite excellent policies we do have, and the tragic ways in which our democratic experiment has lost its way. Those who have followed my work, not only in the apartheid years but since 1994, will know my strong feelings about justice and injustice, about the widening, scandalous, and dangerous gap between rich and poor – one of the greatest challenges this country is facing, and still seems to be ignoring – about the failure of the rightful redistribution of land, wealth and power. My concerns about the uncritical, unwise haste with which we embraced neo-liberal capitalism have deepened. So has my distress at our captured reconciliation process, our hijacked revolution and our crippled transformation. And as responsible citizens we should engage in robust, honest public discourse and action on these and other crucial matters.
But one of the things I am both grateful for and proud of is some of the wise choices we have made in foreign policy, and central to them all is our unwavering demand and support for Palestinian freedom, Palestinian self-determination, Palestinian dignity, and the Palestinian right of return. And we have been upfront, honest and clear about this matter from the beginning of this new era.
Recently, I have been revisiting the now-famous conversation between President Nelson Mandela and American TV host Ted Koppel, at Koppel’s Town Hall meeting with Mr. Mandela in 1990 in New York City. On the question of Palestine, on which the discussion lingered, Mr. Mandela was clear and laid down a few fundamentals, applicable to much more than the Palestinian issue, and which have continued to guide our government on these matters. I will mention only two. First, and right off the bat, he touched on the wide expectation in the United States and other powerful countries, that when they make a decision for themselves, they expect all other countries to unquestioningly follow suit. “The one thing which some countries always get wrong,” Madiba said to him, in words that got some of the loudest applause of the evening, “is that they think that their enemies are our enemies. [But] our attitude to that country is determined by that country’s attitude to our struggle.” That means that we are guided by principles of justice, freedom, dignity and solidarity. No matter what your attitude is to these things: for us, they are inestimable values, cardinal to our politics and central to our existence as a dignified people. That also means that we are as committed to the liberation of Palestine as we are to the liberation of South Africa.
Secondly, Madiba made clear, in words that remind me so much of Dullah’s insistence that principles matter, “For anybody who changes their principles depending on whom they are speaking with, that is not a person who can be a leader of their nation.” Those are words our political leaders should earnestly take to heart. When Ted Koppel, eloquent and clever TV host, just sat there looking at him, clearly not used to such a demonstration of the true meaning of leadership, global politics and the power of the powerless, Madiba smiled and said: “I don’t know if I have paralysed you …” It brought the house down.
But the wit of Nelson Mandela, the stupefication of his famous host, the laughter and applause from the audience must not distract our attention from the valuable lessons Madiba was teaching the world; lessons which he hoped would continue to be embraced by South Africa, its government and its people. Fundamentally, Mandela was warning against the wet-finger-in-the-wind politics so prevalent now across the world. In the times in which we live some things have become distressingly clear and even more distressingly common: diplomacy has been replaced by blackmail, negotiations by threats, the politics of decency and integrity by the politics of expediency and vulgarity. What Mandela hoped our country would sustain, and what our government would practice, not incidentally but as a matter of principle, is the real art of diplomacy: the diplomacy of solidarity, decency, honesty, and integrity, guided by principled leadership.
But this is true not only for Palestine. This is true for what has become known as the policies of regime-change that have been intensified so much over the last twenty years or so, and that continue to have such disastrous consequences across the world. These are policies that, as a friend of mine has once put it, have been the epitome of “catastrophic success”: Afghanistan and Iraq, Libya and Somalia, Honduras and Guatemala, and now Venezuela. And increasingly, what has been started in Iran in 1953 by the US and the UK, we see now once again threatening Iran in 2019.
When no fewer than sixty countries, including those in the European Union, jumped when Mr. Trump cracked the whip on his actions against Venezuela, South Africa was one of those who remained firm, steadfastly standing by what Madiba had taught us. Now that the hasty embrace of Juan Guaido has become so toxic, and those countries are looking for ways to make a retreat, South Africa, in this regard, and 40,000 Venezuelan deaths later, has nothing to be ashamed of. That is the diplomacy of integrity, decency, and solidarity. And that should make us proudly South African.
Essa and Dullah would have rejoiced. And like me, they would hope that the current initiatives on Venezuela in Oslo would not turn out to be another useless Oslo Peace Accord that has brought nothing but further disaster for occupied Palestine, even while we know that that particular political vulgarity known as “The Deal of the Century” is even worse. When in 1994, South Africa announced that our foreign policy would be based on human rights and include recognition of the principles of Ubuntu, there were those who scoffed, accusing us of a kind of African naïvité, out of place in the harsh realities of this world.
They may now think they were right, but not because we were wrong. And look where that mindless cynicism has taken the world: foreign policies characterised by bullying instead of respectful negotiation; forceful capitulation instead of common understanding; submission instead of equal partnership; reckless lawlessness instead of respect for international law. Rabid ethnic and religious nationalism instead of inclusive global security, and xenophobic rage instead of an understanding of our common humanity. Imperialist expansionism instead of peaceful co-existence; destructive, unbridled neo-liberal capitalist exploitation instead of planetary security; internationalised thuggery instead of the promotion and protection of human rights, and nationalistic vanity instead of global servanthood. It is a form of international political vandalism.
Our world, in the grip of frightening imperial arrogance and hubris, is a world in terrible upheaval. In this world, Du Bois’ questions and Madiba’s wisdom call to us with a fierce urgency that is inescapable and inescapably personal: in the face of lies and deceit, of insult and brute force, of despising and detraction: where is our integrity and honesty? What does it mean to be decent and courageous? In other words, what does it mean to be truly human? Neither Mandela, nor Du Bois will let go of us.
Du Bois had lived his life in times that were no less times of terrible upheaval than ours today. He had been fighting for justice, freedom and equality for African-Americans all his life. It was life’s bitter experience, and life’s infinite founts of wisdom gained by the oppressed, not philosophical idleness that prompted these questions. He wrote these words in 1957, but recall the times: racial injustice, mindless oppression, endless humiliation, systemic discrimination, lynchings and gratuitous violence of a viciousness that stuns the mind. It is time for us to return to those questions, to imprint Mandela’s wisdom on our hearts and minds, as Essa and Dullah tried to do.
Essa and Dullah are no longer with us. But the struggle for justice, equality, dignity and genuine freedom is far from over. We are facing old, ongoing, and new challenges. Apartheid, they tell us, is gone, but apartheid is everywhere. Reconciliation has been realised, they tell us, but reconciliation without repentance that is the restoration of justice and dignity is nothing more than political pietism, an empty clanging cymbal, a worthless slogan. The culture of corruption, the mindless self-indulgence of the rich and powerful, the self-destructive politics of instant gratification, delusion, and deception we now call state capture is simply the symptom of the deeper sickness that is the disdain for the poor, the deeper insult that is the betrayal of the trust of our people, the deeper malady that is the contempt for our sacrifices and our hopes. We have so much work to do still. Perhaps, one fervently hopes, the “new dawn” President Ramaphosa has promised will take us closer to those goals for which so many have struggled, sacrificed and died.
It is said that no one is indispensable. And in the long curve of life and the cycles of endings and new beginnings, I suppose that is true. But I believe it is only true if there is no example to follow, no life to emulate, no star to guide, no legacy to honour. So in the long run we may find that Dullah and Essa too, are not indispensable. But what remains truer than this is the fact that they are and always will be unforgettable. What they have been is what they will always be in our hearts, and what they have done will always guide us toward what it is that we should do, as long as this struggle continues.
What counts is what we do in the moment that we are alive, and that is what makes us indispensable. Indispensable for the moment in which we live, for no one can do for us what we have to do for ourselves. No one can make us believe about ourselves what we know to be untrue, so no one can tell us we cannot be strong, we cannot be courageous, we cannot be faithful to our cause, to our people, and to our God. No one can make us forget that as long as there is pain and suffering, rejection and exclusion, injustice and violence inflicted upon the vulnerable, there is something to fight for. And no one can make us forget what we are called to do, in this moment of our times, and that makes us indispensable. This is what joins indispensability to unforgettability.
So in times of our greatest distress, of our deepest disappointments, of our darkest bewilderments, when we feel the helplessness of our own dispensability, we remember Essa and Dullah, and let them inspire us, remind us of who they were and what we have pledged ourselves to be. That is what makes them unforgettable and indispensable. What makes them unforgettable and indispensable is that they remind us that we too, can be as indispensable and we will be as unforgettable.
In these ongoing struggles, we must, as Charles Villa-Vicencio called them, “the restless presence” in the life of the nation. We must not make the imperfect our yardstick, nor the mediocre our consolation. We must not measure our progress by the comfort of the rich, but by the character of the justice we do to the poor and vulnerable. Judgement on our walk to our God-ordained destiny as a people must not be taken from the privileged and pampered circles of the powerful, but from the powerless, the voiceless and the vulnerable. The authority with which we rule in this country must not be derived from the approval of the mighty and the boastful, but must rest upon the hopes of the poor, the ones of unimpressive proportions, in whom the living God has invested the hope for life, and where our hope for life is to be found.
That is what it means to be proudly South African.
District Six Museum, Cape Town
6 July 2019