When I was in high school, I discovered the word idealism. I think someone tried to use it against me to insult me because, unlike her, I wasn’t a realist. I remember latching onto the word because it pointed in the direction of something I fundamentally believed at the time and still believe today: that the world is not good enough and we have to make it better.
Last month I attended the inaugural lecture commemorating the life of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, the woman who pressed rape charges against then deputy president Jacob Zuma.
I met Fez through the One in Nine Campaign network of organisations, which had supported her during the rape trial, a trial she subsequently lost and that landed her in exile. Fez and I remained friends until her death two years ago. The world is not good enough and we have to make it better. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because our lives as women are literally at stake.
Last month, at the inaugural Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo memorial lecture, keynote speaker Pregs Govender, a former parliamentarian, South African Human Rights commissioner and the author of the book Love and Courage: A story of insubordination, said that, in a world of hate, love is not taken seriously — and that love is the quality of our being. She then asked two questions that I am still trying to answer: “What will we do to remember our wholeness?” and “How do we sustain ourselves?”
I don’t want to believe that patriarchy and misogyny have been a part of our lives since the beginning of time. I want to believe that there was a time of peace, when people flourished and lived their best lives and that patriarchy and misogyny emerged as a result of clambering for scarce resources. Some argue that patriarchy began with the Adam and Eve narrative, in which Eve is used to justify women’s oppression. No matter where and when patriarchy and misogyny began, it is here now, although I don’t believe it has to be a reality forever.
Love is one of the most profound ways to respond to these social pathologies. And by love I’m not talking about a feeling. I’m talking about an existential and metaphysical orientation if we are to keep ourselves whole, if we are to sustain ourselves. By love I’m referring to a practice that reminds us of our humanity: ubuntu bethu.
Once upon a time, people believed that racism as a system was inevitable. But throughout the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid movement here at home, incalculable networks of people, through human connections, challenged these ossified ideas and changed the public imagination. One of the leaders of the civil rights movement, John Lewis, referred to it as a love movement. He said: “The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me and, in spite of that, I’m still gonna love you.”
I find this very difficult to believe — that love can be an appropriate response to systemic oppression and dehumanisation. But the results of the civil rights movement are still being felt in the US and in places around the world that find inspiration in movements and work challenging us to make the world a better place to live.
Nontsizi Mgqwetho, who was a poet in the 1920s, wrote: “Asinakuthula umhlaba ubolile” (We cannot keep quiet while the world is rotten).
Our world is in shambles. And there’s no running away from the fact that as young people, although it is not our fault that the world is the way that it is, it is the world we have inherited.
I’ve never known what it’s like not to be thinking about the world and how to make it a better place. I grew up poor and black but had the opportunity to go to a good school and have a loving church community — with all the problems and complexities churches and schools have. I began to see how having loving communities at school and at church helped me to survive poverty. By experiencing love, I knew I was not my single story of poverty.
After my sister and I went hungry for three days and arrived at school starving on a Monday morning the staff members devised a plan to support us until my sister was in matric. I got a scholarship until the end of high school. While the school looked for structural support, many teachers used their own resources and money to show that they cared about our wellbeing. They offered lifts home after evening functions instead of leaving my sister and me to walk through town at night.
My sister and I joined the Wesley Guild, the youth manyano in the Methodist Church, which gave us a network of older brothers and sisters who cared for our spiritual growth.
I am here because people loved me. They made choices to share their time, resources, homes and an endless list of things that it takes to humanise someone. Because poverty dehumanises.
My sister and I will always carry the trauma of having grown up poor. We have vowed to keep ourselves close to the pain of others, lest we forget. So because I survived I believe in love. I believe we can make the world a better place.
Choosing love and even writing and speaking about love publicly is viewed with suspicion and often even ridiculed. This is because we have made too much room for hate and cynicism. We have normalised our relationship with despair as though we have no examples of ancestors who have not only lived out love in response to hatred but have also thought about love carefully and deeply. In the same way that hatred seeps into every part of our lives, love is coming for everything. And perhaps that is what we are supposed to do in an ugly world. To choose yourself. Choose community. Choose life. Choose love.