Not long after the death of Struggle stalwart Albertina N Sisulu, a fellow youth nonchalantly asked what the relevance of MaSisulu’s death was to his life. I was a bit amazed but it wasn’t jaw dropping stuff. Such sentiments from contemporaries have come to be expected, especially when it relates to the political history of South Africa. In replying to his question, I told him that the death of any elder person, in this case a prominent person like MaSisulu, is equivalent to the burning of archives because of the wisdom that usually comes with old age. A person who dies at 92 must at least have something worthwhile to impart, I’d like to believe. MaSisulu was part of a generation of people who embodied sacrifice, commitment and concern for the well being of oppressed people when it wasn’t fashionable to speak truth to power. She, along with her contemporaries, understood that they were part of a linage of struggle that stretched as far back as the first day when the earliest European explorers anchored on the coastline of the land that would later become the Republic of South Africa. Even with death staring them in the face they were willing to take their chances in pursuit of the ideals of freedom. Hence the likes of former president Nelson Mandela were able to say “If need be it’s an idea for which I’m prepared to die” during the Rivonia Treason Trial.
Nothing happens in isolation in as much as nothing happens of itself. Our conduct always has implications, whether immediate or far reaching in their impact and that ought to always be borne in mind. The individual is a critical component in the machinery of society to which s/he is part of and that individual has to have a set of values and convictions that guide the modus operandi of his or her life. Integrity and responsibility can’t be divorced from our daily activities only to be scrutinized during spiritual inspection on designated days of the week. Our integrity ought to inform of business, social, political and economic positions and dealings. More in our commercial pursuits because it is according monetary value of lack it that destinies of whole nations seem to be measured against in today’s world. When the individual is in a dilemma, he or she would be able to measure the commercial pursuits not only against their financial favourability but also against whether or not they in conflict with that which he or she feels strongly about and one’s integrity is central to that type litmus test. In his critically acclaimed memoir, The Measure of A Man, Sydney Poitier writes about how he refused to play a role of a guy who, according to him, didn’t measure up when the integrity and convictions of the character he was supposed to play didn’t match those his poor parents raised him by in rural Bahamas. The $750 a week could’ve gone a long way in helping him and his pregnant wife at the time but because “he (the character) didn’t fight for what mattered to him most. He didn’t behave with dignity…I decided way back at the beginning, back when I was still washing dishes in a barbecue joint in Harlem, that the work I did would never bring dishonour to my father’s name.” Perhaps it’s those are the kind of principles that led to Poitier being the first African American actor to win an Academy Award in 1963 for his role in The Lilies In The Field.
Even though as individuals we are largely responsible for our own lives, we also find ourselves responsible or representing others in our conduct. This is because we are part of genealogies from their political to their social forms and that’s why we can’t attribute everything we do solely to ourselves. The HIV pandemic is arguably one of the greatest scourges to affect humanity and we’ve seen what lies in its wake. A cure isn’t on the horizon. What’s required to halt the increase of HIV is individual discipline and responsibility. If you’re going to engage in sexual intercourse ensure that the necessary protection. Do we consider those whose hope represent when we willingly have unprotected sex? When sub-par houses are built because a construction contract was given to an incapable person with connections to the ‘right’ political party, does such behaviour fit well in the bigger picture of socio-economic plight? When the world was plunged into the credit crises, its source was located in Washington and Wall Street where laws were passed and people who didn’t qualify for loans were allowed to submerge themselves in mortgage bonds they would later struggle to repay. The ripple effect of those actions were felt across the globe. If those bankers had any integrity they wouldn’t have ‘placed’ desperate home seekers in circumstances that drowned them in mortgage debts. “But we must understand that the money lenders of the marketplace have never EVER known the difference between an office or an auction block, they have never known that there was any identity to anything other than that of a hustle, a shuck, a scam, a game. If you listen to them, they’ll tell you that everything is always up for sale” cautions Wynton Marsalis’ Premature Autopsies: Death of Jazz.
We may be individuals but what we do, or don’t do, has a way of affecting others long after we have ceased to live. Our integrity can’t be auctioned off in the name of money. This is not to say money is a bad thing. In fact, I would say making money is a revolutionary act in the South African socio-economic context because for everyone who is able to escape the dehumanizing clutches of poverty is one more step gain against the historical economic injustice of our past. The pursuit of ideals that fit into the grander scheme of things mustn’t be relegated to the periphery when individuals make decisions. For every one person that’s structurally blocked from eking out a living honestly, we risk creating an environment where people answer the call of hunger through any means necessary. At what and whose cost would that be if not all of our own? In our linage of the human experience we, those alive today, represent what was yearned for yesterday and what could be attained tomorrow. Poitier further says:”So I look back on those people (early African American actors) who came before me, and I owe them a debt, you know? So I look back on them with respect and appreciation. They were our predecessors, and they endured. They were the ones that life and nature and history required to walk that road. They gave birth to me, because a part of what I do, a part of what Denzel Washington does, a part of what Angela Bassett does is to respectfully reflect on the endurance of those people. We were, and are, as they would have wished to be, but we could not be as we are without their having paid the price.”