Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

GET UP! STAND UP! Personal Journeys Towards Social Justice

Mark Heywood

Tafelberg

In the DNA of capitalism is inequality. In the DNA of SA’s Constitution is equality. However will they reconcile? Can they? If you are middle class, Mark Heywood is the kind of activist you may think twice about inviting to dinner.

These are the kinds of questions with which he would doubtless harangue you.

He would take note of the large sag in your armchair’s cushion, depressed by decades of self-interested indolence.

He would glimpse your slightly shamed face as he takes in your collection of gewgaws, more evidence of your wilful blindness to the millions of people crushed by want.

Heywood would stir your dawdling conscience still further. He would persuade you to give your favourite armchair to someone who doesn’t have one. Sell your gewgaws and donate all proceeds to ensure school children get a textbook.

He would invite you to work out a plan of action: next steps to achieving social justice.

As Heywood says in the opening pages of his book, he dodged the bullet of writing a book "dry and drab, overly polemical and mildly didactic" by doing as his publisher suggested and adding his more intimate experiences.

His story is about a person with all the keys to privilege who turned them down. "I am a person of the white race, middle class and privileged with a high-quality education. I am a man," he writes.

"To people who are oppressed, each part of my character carries some culpability. I have tried to grapple with this culpability."

His father was a middling, white British banker, so he was born in Nigeria and grew up in Malta, Ghana and Botswana. His life was a comfortable playground, his playmates many colours and creeds.

He first visited SA in 1977. He was 13 years old. He writes: "SA was a shock; its arrival on the doorstep of my life coincided with an awakening of youthful consciousness that had been stimulated by the quality of the education I was receiving."

It was a shock that shaped his life.

As was the norm for many middling-class expats, Heywood was a boarder at a prestigious English school and rounded off his education pedigree with a degree from Oxford. His lifelong love affair with words, music and literature took hold at university, and he celebrates this through the book.

The toehold his instinct grasped against apartheid oppression during his first visit to SA grew to an outraged pair of legs when he returned aged 16. Joining the Rand Daily Mail as a trainee journalist for a month, he writes of his first time living alone in the "evil empire": "I had become an activist. Anger at injustice was now flowing in my blood.

"I had made friends who were black, people whose oppression I empathised with deeply and to whom I felt I owed a debt."

While at Oxford, his youthful choices further shaped his destiny. He became involved with Marxist and socialist political outfits in his first battleground for values that impassioned him in Thatcher’s Britain — including the Marxist Workers Tendency (MWT), aligned with the ANC.

He discovered many of the pitfalls of organised resistance — its turgid language and often-flawed analysis — but also arrived at this resonating insight: "The MWT traced the origins of the ANC to black elites, chiefs and churches, which we warned would betray the hopes of the people because of their ‘unwillingness to break with capitalism’."

These lessons and insights served him well when, in SA in the 1990s, HIV collided with his activist space. His account of his and the country’s journey through that often-nightmarish time is the kind of solid you can lean on.

It is illuminating to see the HIV and AIDS crisis through the eyes of an activist who fought back and won. It reasserts again the faces of humans actually affected by the catastrophe, as well as the gloves-off account of the mayhem caused by politicians and their lackeys.

His critique of the international "AIDS industry" is useful. It can make indulgent, wasteful hypocrites out of many a would-be "do-gooder", those who skip between exotic locations to workshops supposedly tackling the plight of the blighted but who leave with nothing but good intentions and their per diem.

The global activist industry, though, does have value. "The struggle for access to ARV [antiretroviral] treatment for people with HIV succeeded the anti-apartheid movement as the first international human rights movement of the 21st century. Activists imagined and innovated and, by doing so, managed to capture the world’s imagination. By the time we had finished, at least 15-million people were receiving ARV treatment worldwide."

But, on the balance, even he stutters in his defence of this activism. In fact, he identifies established structures that attempt to work for social change as being doomed to failure in the current era.

He writes: "The 21st century cries out for new shapes and methods of organisation. The institutional forms we have inherited, whether they be trade unions, political parties or NGOs [non-governmental organisations], have failed to change the modern world."

Heywood sketches three principles that should underpin efforts to bring about societies that fit in the needs of everyone, accepting capitalism and the centrality of money as a given but daring us to rethink it.

The environment and a legal framework securing human rights are his other musts. But beyond that, he declines to prescribe. It’s an invitation to put on our re-imagining caps.

The lot of a sincere activist often seems threatened with the burnout that comes with putting in so much energy with scant return.

"As I get older the temptation to cut and run gets greater. My time on earth is diminishing. I am tempted to just enjoy life," Heywood writes.

"I face no barrier of class or race or education. I have no dread disease or disability. I could choose to be another person, immerse myself in literature or theatre, trawling through our civilisations, laughing and loving. I won’t."

As he says, "sitting on the fence makes you dizzy".

The book’s opening line captures what’s to come: "This book is about how politics, love, literature and song intertwine and shape consciousness and commitment." It’s also a call to action, to get you out of your armchair and adding yourself to the force for social justice.

Will I dare to invite Heywood for dinner? What day suits you, Mark?

Please sign in or register to comment.