The Big Read: The heroes who said 'no'

18 March 2016 - 02:51 By Darrel Bristow-Bovey

When I was young Tyler de Klerk's dad lost his job. This wasn't unusual - in our neighbourhood plenty of dads had no jobs. Not having a job didn't seem terribly undesirable - it gave the dads more time to arrange rusting car parts around their front yards and wipe their hands on the front of their vests. Brandy - and I believe this is still true today - isn't going to drink itself.But Tyler de Klerk told us afterwards that his dad had been asked to do something bad at work, and then he'd refused to do it, so he'd been fired.Now I don't know if this is true. People tell lots of stories about why things happen to them. Sometimes they do a bad job or they are caught doing something wrong or it's just bad luck and they're fired and afterwards they make up stories so they'll still look good to their kids or to themselves. But I have no compelling reason to doubt Tyler de Klerk's dad. I'm prepared to accept that he was fired because he wouldn't do something bad.None of us kids thought this a particularly noteworthy event. People in comic books were always having a hard time because they didn't want to do the wrong thing. Obviously there was a bad guy at Tyler's dad's work, and bad guys always make life hard for good guys at the beginning of the story, but in time obviously the good guy will prevail and everyone will learn the truth.Our biggest concern as kids was that we so often did the wrong thing - we stole our sisters' Easter eggs, we lied, we spent too much time with our hands under the bedclothes. God sees you do wrong things and punishes you. We didn't think Tyler de Klerk's dad was a hero - we thought he was being sensible. The way to win in the end is to do the right thing. We just assumed moral strength is something that develops with age. When we grew older, we'd find it easier to be good.When Mcebisi Jonas confirmed this week that one or more Guptas had offered him the post of minister of finance, adding the curiously creepy details that it had happened while the president was out of the room, conjuring images of Jacob Zuma as a genteel Southern lady discreetly excusing herself to powder her nose and leave the gentlemen in peace to talk about business and man-things, I remembered Tyler de Klerk's dad.Everyone is very excited because at last people close to power are speaking out about President Zuma - appropriately during the Ides of March, 2060 years after a group of senators, emboldening one another, turned on Julius Caesar and stabbed him to death (not actually in the back, but in the neck and chest, and, somewhat unnecessarily by Brutus, in the groin). It remains to be seen who Zuma's Brutus will be, but what moves me isn't hearing Vytjie Mentor and Mcebisi Jonas and Derek Hanekom finally finding their voices. I'm glad it's happening but I don't know what motivates them or what hidden currents are at work. I'm also not overly impressed that it took them this long. It could be conscience, but it's more likely to be politics.What does move me is the opportunity - even if it's brief - to let myself be a child again and believe in Tyler de Klerk's dad.If we accept that Mcebisi Jonas's story is true, it's something heartbreakingly rare and simple and beautiful: a man choosing not to do the wrong thing.He could have told himself any number of stories to justify taking the job from the Guptas. He could have convinced himself he could do more good inside than out, that the country would be better off with him than someone else. He could have looked around and seen everybody else doing it, and seeing them all thrive.He could have found a way to assure himself that though what he's about to do might seem wrong from certain angles, he's still a good man, doing the sensible thing. He could have done what any number of otherwise good people in the ANC did when they held their noses and voted down a no-confidence vote or to absolve Zuma of paying back the money. We all like to think of ourselves as good guys, not bad guys, but I don't know how many of us could truthfully swear that in Mcebisi Jonas's shoes we wouldn't have tried to find some way of making it okay for ourselves. Instead, the Guptas came knocking and he says he said no, and I want to believe him, and I want to find Tyler de Klerk's dad, wherever he is, and tell him that he was a hero...

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