In Pittsburgh and Citrusdal, gestures banish hate
As Madiba understood, powerful gestures let our common humanity outshine old enmities
When a 46-year-old white man called Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in the city of Pittsburgh, in the US, last Saturday, he was driven by a singular obsession – his racial hatred of Jewish people.
After killing 11 worshippers and wounding six others on this Jewish holy day of Shabbat, Bowers was heavily injured in the confrontation with police. Even as he was wheeled into the emergency room at a nearby hospital, Bowers, still boiling with rage, made sure those around him understood his mission: “I wanted to kill all Jews.” Then, the unbelievable happened.
“I am Dr Cohen,” one of the three Jewish doctors tells the bleeding patient. Dr Cohen was a member of the synagogue where the murders just took place. The greatest irony of all, the very people Bowers wanted to exterminate were the physicians working to save his life and care for his wellbeing.
On the other side of town, another moving and unexpected response was unfolding. Two Muslim organisations, including one called CelebrateMercy, had raised more than $150,000 to help victims and their families. It was difficult not to feel a lump in one’s throat as the one Muslim leader, with Jewish congregants behind him, told the community that whatever they needed, whether it was money or security or just someone to talk to, “we’ll be there for you”.
In that beautiful, poignant moment all those ancient enmities were dissolved and our humanity shone through the terrible darkness of racial and religious hatreds.
As I addressed the farming community of Citrusdal, about 160km outside Cape Town, on Tuesday night, near a packing house for citrus fruits, all the old fault lines were on display. The whites sat at their tables and the black workers at their own tables. The white people spoke and managed the evening, while the blacks listened dutifully. But even here at the foot of the Cederberg mountains, something beautiful was happening. The owners of this citrus facility wanted to change and so they invited me to speak about our passion as South Africans and our common humanity. You’ve got to start somewhere. And so I told them about the power of gestures on display in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and in our own history as South Africans.
I reminded them of how our leaders, like Nelson Mandela, similarly understood that leadership does the unexpected in a crisis. It surprises people with generosity when what they expected is vengeance. And so whether it was having tea with HF Verwoerd’s widow in Orania or arranging a kosher lunch for his prosecutor, Percy Yutar, or wearing Francois Pienaar’s Springbok jersey at Ellis Park, Mandela understood the power of the gesture.
But it is not enough, I warned the wonderful people of Citrusdal to simply talk about change and not do it. And so I raised the issue of land ownership and showed them examples of white farmers who shared land, equipment and training with black workers without the government telling them to do so. Like Eddie Prinsloo in Smithfield, who has given his farmworkers the opportunity to acquire land and start commercial farming. Or the farmer in Franschhoek who handed his 150 workers a state-of-the-art village as residential property; or Colin Forbes in Amsterdam, Mpumalanga, who not only provided land, but also mentorship and resources, including seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and diesel to operate machinery.
The point about gestures is their power to signal what is possible outside of normal politics; to reveal what lies much deeper in our common humanity than competition or, as in the case of extremists like Roger Bowers, extermination. The gesture lays the groundwork for normalising a different kind of interaction between those with more and less power or resources. A human gesture of this kind is effective precisely because it catches us off-guard and shows a better way out of our dilemmas. When in the face of unspeakable tragedy Jewish doctors or Muslim leaders forge bonds of solidarity, then truly there is hope for humanity.
What I witnessed in this communal meeting of black and white in rural Citrusdal was small steps towards conciliation and justice. What was unthinkable a few years ago now is within our grasp. Young, well-dressed, black career women came for the obligatory selfies after the talk; they work in marketing and human resources. Not too long ago their role on the citrus farms was to be nothing more than pickers and packers, like their parents before them. Now, they too can see a future in management and leadership, and turn around the fate of whole families and communities, and, who knows, perhaps even enjoy a controlling share in the company.
Small steps, but I admire the Mouton family of Citrusdal for what we could so easily miss: a powerful gesture in our troubled land.