In my experience, Christmas was a depressing time. It did
not start 15 years ago after my mother died or even 25 years ago after my
father died. It was nothing as specific as an empty seat at Christmas lunch or any
particular adverse childhood experience.
When I was seventeen, I found himself in Maynard Mall in Wynberg
to do Christmas gift shopping. A shop assistant asked me, “Why do you look so
sad?” If I tried to answer the question, I could probably come up with a few suggestions.
Perhaps it started with the conflict that was provoked by the
religious nature of the season. The religion of my childhood and youth, taught me
that I was in the world but not of the world. This meant that I was not
supposed to celebrate Christmas like the rest of the world. In the absence of
clear guidelines of how this was to be done, this certainly put a damper on things.
Christmas was a stressful time. It was marked by the demand
to connect with people, which doesn’t come naturally to me. I mostly prefer to
be alone. But Christmas is a time when I am expected to throw myself into the
crowds, trying to buy the right gifts for friends and family, and, more than
anything, demonstrate the joy of being with people.
Expectations were high and were often dashed. There was the
pressure to buy followed by sinking regret after the purchase. I felt the world
spinning out of control.
The Christmas story in itself is a sad one. A poor young pregnant
woman traveling in discomfort, cannot find a place to rest. Turned away from
every inn, she and her partner eventually find a place to sleep in a stable. In
that stable, surrounded by farm animals, she gives birth to her first child. Soon
after his birth, the little family are turned into refugees and have to flee
across the border in order to escape a crazy ruler.
Today, this tragic tale is overlaid by the crass, commercial
and extravagant celebration. As I shop for gifts and nice food, I am confronted
by poverty – the hungry children who will not get presents, the desperate
salesperson hoping to earn some commission on a last sale before the big day. In
the media, I am reminded of the heartlessness of Trump’s America, oppression
all over the world and injustices closer to home.
When I lost the shackles of religion, the temptation to
replace Christmas with another celebration was great; the desire for clear
guidelines on how an atheist should celebrate (or not) a religious holiday was
I realise that a lot of my feelings around Christmas are
linked to the pressure which I internalised.
But this year was different. I decided to stop worrying. What a relief that was.
I started the day by doing something simple: joining a great
group of people, Running4Pads, to hand out sandwiches and sanitary pads to
homeless people and refugees in the centre of Cape Town. What a great
experience for the spirit.
I allowed himself to be caught up in my daughter’s
enthusiasm for the holiday: fixing a homemade star to the top of the Christmas
tree on Christmas Eve, helping Santa to eat and drink the cookies and milk left
out for him before she woke up on Christmas morning… It was exquisite to just
enjoy her delight and not to worry about anyone or anything else in those moments.
Christmas lunch was simple with people who I consider to be
my extended family.
Then there were the meaningful connections that I made with
people. I bought less (except for my daughter who was spoilt) and received less.
But I was happier with what I gave and received.
I took time off and allowed myself to embrace the cultural
and social significance of the day; beyond the religious and economic
trappings. Christmas is what you make it to be.
My thoughts about Nelson Mandela are similar to thoughts that I
have about my parents. They are best summed up by Breyten Breytenbach in his
poem, “Wat die hart van vol is loop die mond van oor”. Writing
about his mother he says,
vir u kan ek om die dood nie ‘n bitter vers skryf nie
alhoewel dit die mode is om stikkend verby die moederspeen in die mond te skel
en die sandkastele van kinderjare roekeloos om te skop, op die grafte te spoeg…
Today, the memory of Mandela that overshadows others is, on the
one hand, attacked by militant youth and, on the other, celebrated by the privileged
classes. The memory of him that is largely celebrated is that of the reconciliatory
Mandela – the man who forgave his captors, who had tea with the widow of
apartheid’s architect. The memory of Mandela, the revolutionary, who founded
the armed wing of the African National Congress in 1961, is conveniently
If anything, Mandela has taught us is that timing is important. Just
as there is a time for a war, there is a time for peace. What the privileged and
moderates want to memorialise forever is the Mandela for peace and
The result is that 25 years after the end of apartheid, we are
still trapped in a situation where the so-called fears of the privileged few seem
to count for more than the expectations of the majority. Little has changed in
25 years precisely because there has been a deliberate intention to make
compromises. The World Bank GINI index still ranks South Africa as the most
unequal country in the world.
There have been squandered opportunities over the past two decades.
Corruption at various levels of government and misplaced priorities such as the
spending of R30 billion on military weaponry in 1999. But there have also been failures
to act in key areas such as land restitution, transformation in sport, and access
to education. This failure to act is largely due to policies and practices that
sought to appease the privileged few.
The gap between rich and poor is stark when it comes to access to
schooling. There is the obvious divide between private schools and public
schools. But even among public schools the levels of inequality are high.
No better example of excess can be found than a small and privileged
public school in the southern suburbs of Cape Town – Rustenburg Girls’ Junior
School. Between 2016 and 2017, Rustenburg Girls’ Junior School spent more R9.6
million on revamping its swimming pool facilities. Over the same period, the
school spent only about R300,000 on bursaries. In 2019, the school dipped into
its reserves and will spend just under R1 million on resurfacing its netball
courts. Less than R200,000 is budgeted for bursaries.
This excessive spending on infrastructure at a public school
happens in a country where many schools lack basic facilities such classrooms,
electricity and clean running water. An audit in 2018 found that at nearly
4,000 schools the only available toilets were pit latrines. In recent years,
there have been confirmed reports of four children who have died in such unsafe
toilets – two by drowning. Many students in rural South Africa have to walk
more than 20km each day to get to and from school. Many children drop out of
schools because their families cannot continue to afford to provide the basic necessities
such as food and clothing, and cover the costs associated with schooling.
To fund their lavish spending, Rustenburg’s annual school fees will increase by 6.5% from 2019 to R38,865 in 2020. This is more than what it costs for a year of study at many South African universities – for example, at the University of Free State it costs about R34,000 for a first-year of study towards a Bachelor of Arts degree. These fees are apart from other costs such as for several sets of compulsory uniforms – for winter, summer and sport.
School fees are an obvious means to exclude whole groups of
people. Wealth is still very much distributed along racial lines in the
country. So, it goes without saying that by keeping out those who cannot afford
the high fees, schools such as Rustenburg keep out mainly black families. The
school last released statistics on its student demographics in 2017. At that time,
only 9% were black African and 19% were Coloured among the student body. Of the
51 members of the management and teaching staff, 16 (31%) were Coloured and only
2 (4%) were black African.
High fees are but one barrier to access at a school such as
Rustenburg. The application of the school’s admissions policy is another. In
this regard, there is a deliberate aim to retain dominance by a certain racial and
cultural group. The fears of the dominant group is best encapsulated by a
question posed by a member of the School Governing Body in August 2018: “Does
anyone have any ideas on where we could pull data that debunks the myth of
dropped standards if you take in people of colour or from a socio economic
class lower than RGJS? There’s a perception that as soon as you bring in too
many people of colour or people of a certain class then the academic standards
of the school will drop.”
The newly appointed principal of Rustenburg Girls’ Junior School has
said that transformation at the school must proceed at “a pace of grace” and
that it is necessary to “slow down to speed up.” The argument is based on the idea
that different members of the school “community” are at different points in the
transformation journey. The question is, at what point of the transformation
journey is the school’s SGB and senior management team?
The other question is: “grace” for whom? This approach hints at
not taking sides. In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 Elie Wiesel said, “Neutrality
helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never
the tormented.” No change, like delaying change, favours those who benefit from
the status quo.
Why We Can’t Wait is
the title of a 1964 book by Martin Luther King Jr. Like Mandela, King became a
darling of white moderates after his death, and he is often held up as an
example of civility to shame activists today. In this particular book, King
cites the slow pace of school desegregation (after the Supreme Court ruled in
its favour in 1954) as one of the reasons for 1963 having become a landmark
year of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. Central to the book however is
“Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written in response to white
religious leaders of the American South, who criticised King’s involvement in
nonviolent demonstrations against racial segregation, and who appealed – in a
manner of speaking – for him to adopt “a pace of grace.” King responded by
You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.
History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait”… I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.”
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
The views of those who speak for change at schools such as
Rustenburg Girls’ Junior are dismissed as the views of a minority. This is not
surprising since the majority benefit from the status quo.
Schools like Rustenburg Junior does a great disservice not only to
black students and staff but also to its white students and staff. By
stubbornly insulating itself from change, it robs all of its community the
opportunity to be part of a new dawn and, in fact, to be an example to other
institutions about how change can be brought about.
More than 70 years ago, in the early days of official apartheid, another
moderate sounded a warning: “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day
when they turn to loving they will find that we are turned to hating.”
of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.
 I cannot write an angry word about you, though it is
the fashion to destroy the sandcastles of childhood and to spit upon the