Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Rebirth of Allan Boesak

The Rebirth of Allan Boesak

The Ashley Kriel[1]Lecture last night at the University of the Western Cape, UWC, will not be forgotten soon. The speaker was Allan Boesak and the time was right, perhaps it was a moment of historical importance. Talking from the position of having been the leading founder member of the UDF 25 years ago he spoke on three little words, all, here, now.

The lecture eventually turned out to be a scathing criticism of present politics in the country, that is to say, that of the present ANC government but also of what is going on in the ANC in terms of power struggles on the whole. What made the lecture so powerful was his position as UDF founder. He could in an authentic way, speak to the crowd on non-racialism and on the need to make the fate of the poor a matter that concerns all: in injury to one is an injury to all.

And the crowds were there. The Great Hall of the UWC was packed to capacity (beyond 2,500). One could see that many of those attending had been there when UDF was founded, many were no doubt graduates of UWC.

It was a powerful dialectic that was performed: the ideals of UDF which were lived out in the 1980s despite the oppressive regime were set against what is happening today. The UDF calling was to deal with all, all South Africans without exception, here in this South Africa, now, at this point in time. It would have been impossible to set up the goals of non-racialism and not having lived it there and then. What in fact was portrayed in the 1980s through UDF was a politics of hope, but now the last few years have been characterized by politics of delusion.

He hits out strongly against those who at this time openly state that the reality is “that South Africa is not a non-racial society”. Already then, in 1983, Boesak reminded “the audience that South Africans’ flirtation and fascination with ethnicity is an exercise fraught with danger”. And in South Africa ethnic identity is always close to racial and nationalistic identities now again being articulated, sometimes unashamedly, in various such quarters. The continued categorization (official registration still requires people to state ‘white’, ‘coloured’, ‘black’ etc) is disturbing and invites people to continue using labels of Afrikaner nationalism, “colouredism” (my formulation) and African in the excluding, essentialist sense. He clearly states that ANC has partly given in to such ethnic thinking at this time.

Along the same lines South Africans’ relation to their land remains an unsolved problem. Homelands as well as group areas have all disappeared from the statute books, but remain effectively in peoples’ lives, economically speaking but also socially. Boesak reveals the uneasy truth about us in South Africa at the moment: “Too many of us live with that unbearable paradox: our bodies might be in the promised land, but our minds are still in Egypt”.

He further branded utter failures by the present government, the alarming levels of corruption, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the rapidly growing distrust in the democratic institutions, including the criminal justice system.

A few days earlier prominent leaders from the ANC youth league as well as COSATU, had said they were prepared “to kill for Zuma”. Boesak: “We have been stunned, amazed and devastated by the senseless talk of violence by some of the present leadership.” Such talk has no place in our democracy. It is furthermore “a cruel and thoughtless inversion of commitment”. Mandela’s call for democracy and freedom at the Rivonia trial in 1963 was contained in his preparedness to die for the people “if need be”, not the other way round.

The rhetorical elegance and aptness were there for all to hear. Boesak is a divinely gifted speaker. A sample of such elegance to end with:

“A promise deferred is a promise denied. A promise not fulfilled is a dream defiled. A promise reborn is a moment recreated.” And he ends off with the following exhortation: “We must say this, not to the politicians, not to the world, but to ourselves … all the people of South Africa, in all our rainbow brilliance: wake up from mourning.”

He could have dwelt more on the sore point of xenophobia, still rife in our country and largely unsolved. He could also have articulated the role of ‘the whites’ in the country, who necessarily must be part of the new South Africa, which was also clearly articulated and practised in the UDF. But he qualifies later which whites he is talking about: “we were not naively or romantically speaking of all white people, but rather those ‘who have struggled with us… those who have died in the struggle for justice’.” This makes sense in the UDF days of living under an oppressive, white regime. However, it would have helped would Boesak have been able to say something of the role of the whites today. Is their unwillingness to share, not only material goods, but rather more their time and social space, the ultimate sign of marginalization? Will they eventually not be part of the new South Africa, or is there still some hope? Boesak said nothing about this dilemma.

Be that as it may, this was a great evening. It was Boesak at his best and at his best as Boesak the politician; and make no mistake about it (as Beyers Naudé often used to say), after the speech a number of people in the audience asked him to come back home (to politics in some form).

I can only concur. What we need now is a person of the calibre of Allan Boesak in some form of political leadership. If the ANC cannot stomach such a free spirit there should be other ways by which he could play a constructive role for the nation.

Maybe this evening was a moment giving a promise of a politics of hope after all. It can be seen as if this promise was reborn. In that case, what we were witnesses to was nothing less than the rebirth of Allan Boesak, a man of the church, who would do extremely well would he take the step, again, into politics, for the sake of the nation and the world.

Hans S A Engdahl, 2008-07-31

[1] Ashley Kriel was an anti-apartheid activist who died at the hands of the police in Athlone, Cape Town as late as 1989.

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