South Africa Needs A Revolution

This speech was given at the Midlands Literary Festival.

There is a song by Paul Abro that begins with the words “The newspaper stands in the corner – bears the burden of bad news.”

The burden of bad news? – Our senses are inundated with bad news, on the television, in the newspapers, on bill boards. No wonder so many South Africans have a poor self image of ourselves. Our history has also largely contributed to this because of decades of being defined and separated by the colour of our skin.

As the high spirits and hope of a united South Africa faded following the dawn of our new democracy in 1994, I developed a deep passion to unite South Africans. I asked myself over and over again how a simple woman living in Pietermaritzburg could have any impact on our country. One day I was driving into Shongweni Valley when an idea came to me that was so strong I pulled off the road and cried. This was the start of our organisation called Awesome SA which I co-founded with Derryn Campbell seven years ago.

In the seven years that we have been running Awesome SA I have come to believe that the only way we can create the country we dream about is through a revolution. Not a bloody revolution, not a revolution of marches, burning tyres and lawlessness, but an inner revolution, a revolution of the spirit, a revolution of our mindset, a revolution that will affect the collective consciousness of our country and impact positively on our future – a revolution that will change our thinking and pull us together as a nation. But how do we change our thinking? How do we find a new way of seeing things?

There is a young black man who came to me having travelled south, crossing the border into South Africa. He hoped to earn enough money to send back home to feed his family. He tells me that at times he had nothing to eat and would drink water to stave off the hunger pangs. In later years his mother travelled all the way to South Africa to deliver in person her thanks to our family for having assisted her son. But I am getting ahead of myself…
Let me start at the beginning.

Calvern Kusiyamiso’s family lived in poverty. His parents had not had the opportunity to be educated. They threw all their energy and resources into educating him and his siblings. He and his brother would share a sleeping mat and take turns to study under the street lights. His mother worked a full day and then would sit up through the night crocheting doilies to sell in South Africa. Once she had made enough items to sell, she would set off on foot through the back roads and dangerous foot paths to reach South Africa. At times she would hear the voices of soldiers on patrol and would scramble into the bushes, throw a blanket over herself and her bags and pray that they would pass her by undetected. Often she would travel at night so as to go unnoticed. These journeys would be taken to earn enough money to keep her children in school and ultimately open the door to their tertiary education. Over the two years that Calvern worked with me I heard his story in bits and pieces. He started off earning money by selling trinkets at the traffic lights in Pietermaritzburg. Once he was working with me he mentioned to me that our western culture is different to his. “Yes, I tell him, “I will teach you which knife and fork to use and the table manners that will hold you in good stead when you are President of your country and are dining with British Royalty.” He looks at me and sees the twinkle in my eye and we laugh together. Cal has a wonderful sense of humour.
And so he works for me in the mornings. In the afternoon and late into the night he studies a correspondence course to get a Masters Degree in Supply Chain and Procurement. The two of us are no longer working together as he has managed to get work for a large company. They pay him much more than I was able to do through running Awesome SA, our Non Profit Organisation. I told him to go with my blessing when he tells me about being accepted for his new position. That working with me was part of his life’s journey and I wished him all the best. Everyone needs someone to hold their ladder as they move through life especially those who have nothing and need to pull themselves out of the hopelessness and poverty that drags them down day by day. A couple of weeks after he started working for Defy in Durban, my phone rang and he told me excitedly that he had passed his Masters Degree. My heart soared with his success and left a warm feeling in my tummy for the rest of the day. You may wonder why I have told you this story.

Well you see I had this passion to change South Africa so I tried to contact people such as Bill Clinton and Richard Branson but I did not accomplish anything. I tried contacting the top people in our Government thinking I could influence them but I had no success with that either. Then I tried to change my neighbourhood by starting a Community Police Forum where I believed I could pull people together as a community but was still unsuccessful. Then I thought I could at least change my family but they would roll their eyes and think that I had quite lost my mind – so I failed again. Then I decided what I really needed to change myself first.
Helping Calvern was a result of the change in me.

Our home has become open. People of colour came to stay with us and/or join us for meals. Becoming friends with people from walks of life different to my own has taught me to see people for whom they are and I no longer judge them by the colour of their skin or their social standing. Black, white, Indian and coloured people are now our friends. As I changed I was amazed to see that my family changed too and our lives have become so much richer for doing so.

Yes, bad news is around us all the time and if we believe that this is all there is in South Africa we can become very disheartened and disillusioned. The good news is that the revolution that I am talking about has already begun.
This revolution is a social consciousness that is arising in South Africa. Thousands of people are reaching out to break down our social and racial barriers and are plugging the holes that have developed in our society.
There are currently over a quarter of a million (125 484) registered NPOs in South Africa, not to mention all the community projects and individuals who are making a difference to people’s lives.

Unfortunately amongst our people there are still deep divisions with judging people by the colour of their skin, misunderstanding of our different cultures and a deep-rooted lack of trust. Every official document still defines us as black, white, coloured or Indian. When I have to fill in a form which asks me my colour, I write South African because I strongly believe that we should identify ourselves as South Africans disregarding our colour.
Last week-end, our family was invited to the unveiling of Rev Dr Khosa Mgojo’s tombstone. Rev Mgojo died two years ago and was on a level with Archbishop Desmond Tutu but within the Methodist Church.

There were possibly fourteen white people in the crowd of approximate 550 people. Besides commemorating his life, the general theme at his unveiling was the disillusionment of the road that South Africa is travelling on right now. The overriding sentiment was no different to the views of most white South Africans.

South Africa, we need to start pulling together, we need to see each other firstly as South Africans.
When we reach out to one other and rise above our fears and mistrust, then we are able to meet human to human. None of us can change the colour of our skin but we can change our outlook and our attitude to others.

I had the privilege of speaking to Siyabulela Xuza today.This young South African comes from a poor community in Umtata where he started experimenting with rocket fuels in his mother’s kitchen. Siya is a hero in other parts of the world and is hailed by many as the new Mark Shuttleworth, although many South African;s have not heard of him. He developed a cheaper and safer rocket fuel used by Nasa and has had a planet named after him which is known as Siyaxuza and is found near Jupiter. Siya is now studying at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences . He has taken up other academic challenges such sa debating, studying Mandarin and world music because he believes this will broaden his mind.

Norton Rose Fulbright, a global legal practice announced that Sbu Gule became their global chairman from May this year. Sbu grew up in the greater Edendale area, studied his law degree at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. He did his primary schooling in a mud hut and despite the abject poverty that surrounded him, there were also great role models around him, including his parents. He realised that you cannot be defined by your surroundings and he proceeded to excel in his chosen career, This is another black South African who has excelled on an international level and one does not have to comply with BBE to be accepted internationally. I give these examples of black people who were given the opportunity of a good education and have excelled in their lives. The colour of our skin tells us nothing about a person. Nothing, absolutely nothing. It does not say if that person is warm-hearted or kind, clever or witty, or whether that person has integrity and sound moral values.

Driven by my passion to make a difference and unite South Africans, I decided to write a book.
I based You’re Awesome on the people, books and experiences which have had a profound influence on me over my life time. It took me two years to publish the book as I spent some time researching the wonderful philosophy of Ubuntu which runs through many of the chapters of the book. It also took many months for me to get an appointment with Archbishop Desmond Tutu who wrote the foreword for my book. The material in You’re Awesome is not a doctrine but simply a device whereby we can change our thinking and pull together as South Africans to change our world.
The content of You’re Awesome helps us to reflect on our own lives and take simple steps to lead a more fulfilled life. An example is Chapter 1 where I use the quote “Silence is the music of your soul and the road to inner peace is by dancing to your own song” or Chapter 31 called Embrace Your Life where the chapter starts with the quote “Life is not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s the way it is. The way you deal with it is what makes the difference” – Virginia SatirEach chapter then gives guidelines as to how to apply these principles into your own life.

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves: Where in my life can I shift my prejudice or attitude? What is one small act that I can do on a regular basis that will touch the common humanity in another? I have had people ask me to describe the content of You’re Awesome. Mike Norris describes it best by saying: You know how people say “this is not a diet – it’s an “eating plan”? Well I think your book is not just a book, it is a “living plan”.

When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of crises or will it be recorded that we stood up and did the right thing? I believe in the people of this country and like to think that we will be known as the generation that stood together and helped to create a good future for all South Africans.