Today is South Africa’s Human Rights Day.
In my 6 December letter, I promised to share my reading of Charles van Onselen’s The Night Trains in January. I haven’t been able to find my way into. The year has felt so heavy that its themes felt beyond contemplation.
Yet, on this day, when so many were arbitrarily gunned down and killed, it felt to me that one ought to, I ought to, we ought to, turn our attention to the kind of world we want to live in.
Today is a little longer than usual. I’ll ensure that next week is shorter so that we get balance across time.
My writing and my work are about leadership.
I work with people who want to have a significant impact, live joyful lives, and build a humane world.
Much of what I share with you is at the individual or organizational level. Yet all that happens in a far broader context. Oftentimes what happens in the microcosm of the organisation is playing out far broader themes.
A lot of analysis places the missteps made by leaders in the realm of psychology, or organizational failures. These are critical to understand, yet to view those events without a broader lens is to deny ourselves the full understanding needed to create a more humane world.
In the introduction to The Night Trains, van Onselen says,
“History, when done well, is an appeal to the mind, and is about debate, contingency and questioning received wisdoms in ways that deepen our appreciation and understanding of who we are and why and how we did certain things, and perhaps even allows us to learn.”
Today we zoom out both to look at our world as it is, and to turn to history to see what we might learn.
In January, Oxfam International released its annual inequality report. This year it was entitled The Inequality Virus.
There are jaw-dropping soundbites, like:
“In September 2020, Jeff Bezos, then the richest man on Earth, could have personally paid each of Amazon’s 876,000 employees a one-off $105,000 bonus with the wealth he accumulated between March and August 2020 alone, and still be as wealthy as he was at the beginning of the pandemic.”
Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labour, made a similar point in early January, saying that America’s billionaires could give everyone in the country $3,000 and still be richer than they were at the start of the pandemic.
If one could magically get that money across the Atlantic and give it to South Africans, it would mean every South African would get approximately R270,000. University fees anyone?
Remember, the billionaires would still be billionaires.
The temptation is to individualise this, but if we follow that path, we lose sight of the fact that we live in a world where “for 40 years, the richest 1% have earned more than double the income of the bottom half of the global population. A world where the richest 1% have consumed twice as much carbon as the bottom 50% for the last quarter of a century, driving climate destruction.”
Underpinning this have been seismic shifts in how we choose to govern our societies.
Oxfam tells us, that “Between 1985 and 2019, the global average statutory corporate tax rate fell from 49% to 23%, and since 1980 the top rate of personal income tax in the US has almost halved, from 70% to 37%.”
We live in a world with tremendous poverty, and we live in a world with the resources to eradicate it. However, this can all be a bit abstract.
Charles Van Onselen is one of South Africa’s leading historians, the author of numerous landmark books.
The Night Trains tells the history of the railroads that formed the “umbilical cord and lifeblood that gave birth to the mining revolution”, linking the goldfields of the Witwatersrand to southern Mozambique.
I am sharing it, because it is easy to get lost in the seemingly countless zeroes that line-up behind billionaire bank accounts, because this is a little-told part of Southern African history, and because van Onselen helps us see that social systems are always the outcome of deliberate choice and willful ignorance.
Van Onselen strips away the abstractions, forcing us to confront the horrors of what results when we design social systems with little or no social conscience.
His analysis ties the links between northern hemisphere investors, South African mining companies, the Portuguese and South African governments, the voters that kept all these regimes in power, and the tragic results for the people of southern Mozambique and others in South Africa’s mines.
He brings it all together writing, “For half a century and more, the men of Sul do Save were robbed of their freedom to choose an employer by the Mozambican and South African governments even before they left the country of their birth; on the Witwatersrand itself they were robbed of the true value of their labour by mine owners intent on reducing wages for the benefit of shareholders in the developed world; and upon their return to the border post leading to their homeland the miners were robbed of the true value of their savings by border officials, train conductors and unscrupulous dealers when they were forced to exchange any holdings in ‘foreign currency’ at fraudulent rates.”
People were complicit all along the train-line.
Although medical records from the period are scarce, he found the records of a contingent of Chinese workers being repatriated after a year’s minework. Around 46% ‘had been reduced to bodily wrecks.’ Another almost 22% were suffering from one or other form of mental trauma.
One can only imagine the impact on their families and communities when these men arrived traumatized having received little or no care in South Africa’s goldfields.
Van Onselen tells us that, “The needs of northern-hemisphere bankers, financiers and speculators ‘risking’ their hard-earned capital to recover gold from thousands of feet beneath the surface had unleashed the equivalent of a full-scale war, one fought at close quarters in exceedingly cramped quarters on the most unequal of terms. As often happens in street-by-street engagements – or, in this case, rock-by-rock, stope-by-stope fighting – the war produced tens of thousands of casualties and fatalities.”
There is no reason to believe that the experience of Mozambican miners was any different. The historical record alludes consistently to those transported with profound mental illness or debilitating injury.
They were labelled ‘rejects.’
He says, that the ‘hospital coaches’ attached to trains returning to Mozambique were “little more than coffins-on-wheels and part of a systemic mass-evacuation campaign for permanently disabled ‘rejects’ and the terminally ill.”
It may seem unfair to you to link the worlds of the tech and industrial billionaires of 2021 with the bloody collaboration between the mining industry, apartheid, and colonial states from the early to mid-1900s.
You might muse ‘different time, different worlds’… to be sure it is something I am grappling with…
Yet as van Onselen reflects in the closing pages of his book,
“Such systems are not the product of chance; they have a shape and purpose dictated by design that reflects ideology clearly.”
A world in which we confront such profound poverty co-existing with extreme wealth, it is surely worth pausing and wondering whether there isn’t another route we could take.
I’ve found writing this hard.
The topic feels so far beyond my reach, so far beyond my ability to have impact on, it has felt frustrating.
And yet equally, I know that I am a part – albeit a small part – of that system and the laws of physics tell me if I behave differently it shifts the system.
In that spirit, let’s turn our attention to ourselves.
What is the world that we want?
In each space that we occupy, how are we designing and acting to unlock and empower others?
I have been amazed by the generosity and care shown by many businesses and organisations over this last year. Both large and small, multinational, and local. This spirit is one that can be grown.
This post by Darren Hampton, GM of digital marketing at Nando’s, brought my attention to a new Nandos initiative. It is a quintessential blend of their wry humour and care.
On this Human Rights Day, writing from South African, I hold how the legacies of colonialism and apartheid continue to shape our souls and ways of connecting.
The trauma of our past is necessarily present today, in how we make decisions for the present, in how we imagine the future.
Perhaps the first steps in transforming the world, start in transforming ourselves and our own intimate spaces.
Each of us knows what that means in our lives.
Find that one act you could take, that one part of yourself that needs love, that one relationship that needs healing, that one new connection you could make. Seek opportunities to be consciously kind.
Perhaps there is a start.
Perhaps as Marcel Proust put it in Remembrance of Things Past:
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.”
Throughout the book the echoes of war are present, shaping their lives.
“It only takes a single night of frost to kill off a generation. To live, then, is a matter of time, of timing. That time when I was five or six and, playing a prank, leapt out at you from behind the hallway door, shouting, “Boom!” You screamed, face raked and twisted, then burst into sobs, clutched your chest as you leaned against the door, gasping. I stood bewildered, my toy army helmet tilted on my head. I was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves—but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son. Boom.”
In mundane moments of shopping, the horror of the past is there.
“What I do know is that back at Goodwill you handed me the white dress, your eyes glazed and wide. ‘Can you read this,’ you said, ‘and tell me if it’s fireproof?’ I searched the hem, studied the print on the tag, and, not yet able to read myself, said, ‘Yeah.’ Said it anyway. ‘Yeah,’ I lied, holding the dress up to your chin. ‘It’s fireproof.’”
In another moment Vuong is confronted by a schoolyard bully.
“He was only nine but had already mastered the dialect of damaged American fathers. The boys crowded around me, sensing entertainment.”
In these moments he reminds us that traumas are never only history. They are ever present, shaping this moment.
Being aware of that pain, being connected to how it shapes who we are may help us see anew, and from there act with clear intent.
For I think we all agree, this world does not reflect what we want to see.
(This letter was first published on 21 March 2021)