There was a slight whiff of self-congratulation in the air in St George’s Cathedral, this afternoon, when people, many of whom are greying at the temples and thickening around the waist, from all walks of life gathered to celebrate and commemorate the 1989 Peace March. That, I think, is what most depressed me about it all. The whiff of self-congratulation.
I mean, it was a wonderful (and I think necessary) event. I was not in the march. I was in the march in Pietermaritzburg on exactly the same day. And during our march, news filtered through that some 30 000 people were marching in Cape Town, and that the government had done nothing to stop them.
The government did nothing to stop the Pietermaritzburg march either. I remember it well. We had organised it under the banner of the “Standing for the Truth” Campaign – which was, by and large, a cover for the Mass Democratic Movement. If memory serves me correctly, there must have been 10 000 at least people on the Pietermaritzburg March. It started with an interfaith service in the Cathedral. And then leaders of the faith community strode into what was then Longmarket Street. They (and I with them) wore full clerical garb. I remember marching next to the Revd Victor Afrikander. We sang revolutionary songs; we shouted slogans; we raised our fists and chanted “Amandla!”It was heady stuff indeed.
I remember looking up at the offices above what was then Longmarket Street and seeing, far above us, framed by windows, white office workers watching us pass by. I remember the discipline of the marshals, who kept the massive crowd in order and off the pavements. I remember the sullen policemen (they were all men) in cars watching us, but doing nothing. I remember the security police from the balcony of their dreaded headquarters in Loop street, filming us as we stopped to deliver our memorandum to them.
I remember the huge hope we had. I remember our bravery and our sense of purpose. I remember our complete, racially non-divided sense of justice and of what needed to be done to achieve it. I remember all that.
Cheryl Carolis was one of the speakers at today’s event. I think she could be captivating even if she were drunk. She is, and always has been, one hell of a speaker. She said something which I found so extraordinarily pertinent. She spoke of the fact that since the age of 13, she gave her life to the struggle. She made up her mind, that early, that freedom was something she was prepared to die for. She says she thought that freedom was not something which would happen in her life time (neither did I, I must confess).
And then we had it. One day, De Klerk announced that the Movement was unbanned; the leaders were released and we marched triumphantly to freedom. It was just like that! It happened just like that. And then, somewhere down the line - beyond the euphoria, and the rainbow nation, and the South African miracle – unsettling things started happening. The strict codes of ethics which the liberation movements had maintained, started to blur a little; the high moral standards; the noble ideals; the unassailable standards – these started to wash away. At first imperceptibly, but then it became a definite trickle, then a stream, then a rivulet and eventually there was no more place to stand.
“And it happened on our watch”, said Cheryl Carolis. “On your watch and mine”. I felt my blood rise to my face in shame and recognition. Because it is true. We have let things go. We have not spoken out when we should have. We have kept silent, or muted our criticism. We have done so – all of us.
She also said, at another point in her speech, that she found it just a little bit insulting when the people who were so enthusiastically implementing apartheid, started telling “us” how to implement democracy. Yes, I agree. It is irritating. But is it necessarily invalid? After freedom, we were all free. Even the implementers of apartheid. That was the necessary consequence of freedom. And freedom doesn’t only apply to certain categories of people. It applies to everyone.
The thing is, all is not right here. (Neither is everything wrong – but I am not talking about those things). All is not right, and those of us who marched for freedom in 1989, should also be prepared to march, in whatever way may be required now, to protect that freedom which we won back then.