Marikana reminds us where we went wrong
Recently this newspaper ran a rather curious spread featuring letters women journalists wrote to themselves as 16-year-olds.
Reading it, I wondered what I would tell my teenage self.
My thoughts weren't very uplifting: I'd tell myself in no uncertain terms not to be so ridiculously naïve. You see, I made up my mind to become a journalist when I was all of 12 because I wanted to expose the evils of apartheid and because I somehow believed that my deathless prose would help to liberate my nation. As is now history, my plan worked.
To date, however, my part in the downfall of PW Botha and separate development and all it entailed has never been properly documented but, no doubt, future biographers will rectify this historical oversight.
They will relate to a grateful nation how my membership of the PFP Youth and my painting of National Union of South African Students posters, not to mention my incisive reportage when I became an adult reporter, brought the world to its senses and helped to overthrow the odious regime.
Now, in my dotage, my greater mission and obligation towards humankind largely discharged, I am engaged in less barnstorming world-altering activities.
To earn a living I knock around the countryside all day speaking Afrikaans and eliciting from rustic farmers tales of derring-do about Voortrekkers and the Rinderpest and how, during the Anglo-Boer War, their wily Boer forebears ran rings around Buller, Roberts and Kitchener. I have no less an interest in black societies and how their forebears built mighty, now forgotten, cities and ran rings around Shaka, Mzilikazi and Magnus Malan. I travel and meet fascinating, hospitable people with stories to tell. It beats working for a living.
Recently I found myself hurtling down a road in Marikana. I was being driven by a 72-year-old retired teacher with a severe limp who I had come to believe was slightly demented, given the recklessness with which he drove.
I was being driven in his rickety Chinese panel van which he had kitted out with a rudimentary kitchen and a mattress.
As we veered off the tar road and jounced over potholed rutted excuses for roads, he told me how he loved nothing better than travelling but his wife wasn't interested in leaving the comforts of suburban Rustenburg so he travelled alone wherever, whenever he felt like it.
He told me how he had recently roughed it through east Asia, living in dollar-a-day fleapit hostels with European backpackers young enough to be his grandchildren, through Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and had had the time of his life. Off the coast of Thailand, his ferry had been attacked by pirates and the old geezer, being older and wiser and (perhaps a bit more street smart from having lived in South Africa) threw himself into the luggage hold-all where he buried himself in suitcases and backpacks.
While the pirates helped themselves to the tourists' watches, cellphones and wallets, the old man emerged, once the coast guard arrived, unscathed and with all his possessions intact. We drove through what passes for the town of Marikana, a dirty dump that shouts underdevelopment.
We were on our way to meet a farmer who could tell me about the history of the area, the history before the mines came. But you can't exactly ignore big, ugly things like a platinum or chrome mine and the humanity they entail. As we bumped along I couldn't not notice the informal housing and think what a terribly bleak bit of the world this was. I thought of the endearing old "onnie" this week when reading about the terrible events that had unfolded near Marikana.
Like so many of us, I wondered how it all went so wrong. How did a country that is so absurdly endowed with minerals and half-decent infrastructure, and that was once overflowing with goodwill and optimism, come to such a sorry pass? We arrived at this bad place because we allowed political and economic expediency to trump goodwill and good intentions.
We elected bad people who put in place even badder people to run our public entities and organs of state.
We took bad decisions aimed at pleasing the friends of those in power and we passed bad laws like the Labour Relations Amendment Act. Marikana is all about the permissiveness of bad labour legislation and short-term planning.
Last week I wanted to weep for the bright-eyed, believing teenage South African I once was.