‘Angena amajoni, amajoni ase Afrika’ [Here come the soldiers of Africa] sings a march of Sub-A learners as they march two-by-two from their primary school to the local community centre to watch a film in 1976. Their uncontainable excitement was sobered up by what lingered in their minds, which was the powerful lead role played by Sidney Poitier, the main actor who looks like them. Questions ring in their heads about why this is such a lingering and uncomfortable thought because all actors act and are real people, not their roles.
The real issue for which they struggled to find words in their young and precious, and innocent minds is that at that time in their country, it was not the norm to see movies where the lead actors looked like them. This actor had taken on a meaning beyond the film’s entertainment value and the school outing itself.
It may be difficult now to remember that such aspects of life had not escaped the encroachment of the country’s discriminatory laws. We have a constitution and a society striving to birth a qualitatively better reality that is the antithesis of the Apartheid reality. The sad truth was that the skin colour in question was not associated with power but only with servitude or inferiority. The sight of scores of soldiers of one skin colour chasing and beating High School students, all of a different skin colour, had effectively reinforced the apartheid dynamic between skin colour and power in their little minds already.
The song they sang on their way to the film had taken on a new meaning after the movie. From that point they when they sang it, they imagined themselves as soldiers who would defend their society against the brutality represented by those they saw. A yearning developed among some to see what ‘amajoni ase Afrika’ would look like and how it would feel to see a different kind of soldier.
Decades would pass, and many of them would become those soldiers in their late teens once the apartheid reality had erased any innocence they may have had around the use of violence.
Mr Cecyl Esau, our former colleague who passed away in March 2021, personified an entire generation that chose to protect future generations against the oppressive reality in which those learners and generations before and after were socialized. Having met and worked with Mr Cecyl Esau for over a decade, for me, one of those young marchers from that morning became more than a relationship of work colleagues.
When we look closer and attempt to undo the harms brought by that past reality, we begin to appreciate that Mr Esau represented safety against more than physical harm. By offering his wisdom, dignity, intellect, and strong moral compass, he groomed many of his former colleagues to place the highest value on humility, solidarity and respecting the most disempowered in society. Our much-revered late former president said on many occasions that the test of the quality of a society could be seen in how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Mr Cecyl Esau helped us and the many communities and generations in South Africa and beyond delve into the realm of the values, principles, strategies, and ideological tools needed to save our society from itself and become qualitatively better than its past.
Mr Esau led generations of youths and their community elders in restoring and finding ways to sustain the values that enabled his generations like his to come to fully come to grips with what was lost beyond the physical or material. Across the country, high-school learners, and youth, in general, discovered respect for elders they had known been dismissive or ignorant until they interviewed them and helped document their life histories. A legacy now exists in those communities, where the folk-tales containing the values that held those communities together for centuries have been documented for present and future generations.
Today, many will agree that our society is struggling to attend to the moral questions of effecting historical redress adequately, not only in economic and material but also in more intangible, attitudinal or moral terms. Our society’s responses to the need to address dire poverty and want, stark inequality tend to be limited to the economic and material dimension.
We are a society struggling to save its moral compass against greed, crass materialism and shameless greed, outright cruelty, and contempt for those not in the inner circles to the point where money and power determine what is right. Much of one’s perspective on this moral dilemma can be influenced by one’s proximity to the lived experience of those on the fringes of society. The passing of our former colleague had better not mean losing our grip on the moral compass of our society and its yearning to be qualitatively better than its oppressive past.
Our yearning for social cohesion is often based on the assumption that all who are called to that social contract come into it as fully affirmed human beings who feel equal and fairly treated as a result. Mr Esau instilled in many of us the value system we need to save our society from itself. May we and future generations continue to measure ourselves by how we treat the most vulnerable amongst us.
Kenneth Lukuko, Senior Project Leader at the IJR