Thursday, August 16, 2012

Tuto and Solms Panel Discussion

Nelson Mandela Day was celebrated at UFS by a visit from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu who participated in a panel discussion with Prof. Mark Solms, Professor of Neuropsychology at the St. Bartholomew’s and Royal London School of Medicine regarding “Living Reconciliation: Winds of Change in Franschhoek and Transformation at Solms-Delta Wine Estate”.  Discussion focused upon how to solve the major problems facing all South Africans to include poverty, corruption, crime and racism.  The scope of these issues is incredibly daunting, even to an outsider. As Americans, we don't live in a society in which 48% of the population is severely impoverished. While corruption is evident to some extent in all global communities, the depth to which it extends in SA is shocking and fully apparent. Crime is a common and daily part of life.   Finally, even though apartheid ended in 1994, citizens are divided into three major groups: Black, Coloured (meaning of mixed color), and White.  

Throughout SA and on the outskirts of most towns and all cities, the majority of black and coloured people live in what are known as "townships".  Essentially, shacks and tiny concrete houses are grouped tightly together to form their own small towns or cities.  Usually, no ownership is involved.  Public services are limited or non existent.  Many areas are without electricity and running water, and sanitation services are again minimal or unavailable.  I've driven on highways that passed by many townships, and the sheer scope of size is difficult to comprehend.  Some are so enormous that it is impossible to define the boundaries of the township.  Several claim populations of a few million inhabitants.  Rural areas have smaller townships.  Last week, a graduate student in the Department of Theatre and Drama at UFS took me on drive through one of the townships just outside Bloemfontein.  The student, like all black people I have met to date, grew up in the township.  Most of the white students I have met are afraid to venture into the townships due to the perceived threat of crime. 

Nothing prepared me for what I observed.  I've traveled to numerous third world countries, but this was incomprehensible.  We've all seen photos in the press of examples of horrific poverty.  The only means to translate my perspective is for you to imagine those images, and expand them to include 48% of the American population.  Heartbreaking.  Devastating.  Shocking. Appalling. Words really can't describe what I saw.  And, yes, I wept. 

.....and I felt no fear during my visit.

I'll be visiting a township next week, meeting with local leaders, and taking photos. To gain a clearer understanding of the townships, search images using Google or Yahoo.

With such a high rate of poverty, it is no wonder that crime is rampant.  Everyone I've met has been victimized directly on some level, most commonly through theft or muggings.  If you saw what I witnessed in the township, crime begins----at some abhorrent level----to make sense.

Americans tend to "skirt" discussions related to race.  In SA, issues of race figure into everything.  SA is, of course, still dealing with the fallout from the horrors of apartheid.  While the country is working towards equality, generations will come and go before the focus moves away from division caused by skin color.  It is fascinating to witness a country run---and stumble--- as it moves through the healing process. 

These combined problems are so comprehensive as to seem unsolvable.  Which was precisely the focus of discussion between Tutu and Solms.  Solms, a white landowner whose family estate/farm was passed to him through several generations, decided to transform the lives of the farm's workers.
He realized that South Africans can't rely on the government to better the lives of its citizens.  Rather, Solms decided to start "small" and with the individual.  He first met with each of the families who worked his farm and asked for their input as to how to increase the output of wine production.  At first, the workers would not dialogue with him, which he guessed was due to the centuries of oppression by the whites.  Solms enlisted the aid of psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists by bringing the professionals to his farm to learn and document the farm worker's heritage.  Together, they traced the worker's Bushmen lineage, and Solms quickly realized that like his family before him, the workers had lived on the land for generations reaching beyond his family's arrival to the Cape. 

In the discussion, Solms stated that at one point he knew that perhaps he should return the farm to the natives who originally populated the land.  But he was honest enough to admit that he was torn and lacked the desire to do so.  As he stated, he was very attached to the farm and did not want to abandon the compilation of his ancestor's heritage. So he embarked on a groundbreaking plan.  The farm next to his property was for sale, and he approached his workers and asked if they would be interested in purchasing the land in their names and join together in a wine making venture.  When approached, the bank, however, would not underwrite a loan since the workers did not have credit or property.  Solms co-signed the loan, and used his farm as collateral.  His friends were mostly unsupportive. They reminded him that if his neighbors farm failed, Solms would lose his farm.  Which is precisely why he co-signed.  He knew that everyone in this new business had the potential to lose all assets. But he also realized that each owner and worker became dependent upon the other, and worked every more diligently to succeed.  Since 2007, The Wijn de Caab Trust shares in 33% of the profits of three farms, and has transformed the lives of the workers and residents by breaking the cycle of poverty and bringing healing to the community.

Solms believes that every South African should begin by making small changes to help others. The individual must have the desire to improve the quality of life and set obtainable goals.   Tutu stated:
"I hope that each of you knows that you can be a life changing person.  Say to yourself, 'I want to share my compassion with someone.  I want to make someones life better.'  Ultimately, your success is bound up in the prosperity of the other."

Start small.  With one person.