I’ve just returned from a couple of weeks visiting family in South Africa. It is always such a pleasure to spend time with my older brother, Simon, and his family. There is always much laughter – my brother has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Monty Python, as well as of history, Shakespeare, and poetry.
The trip coincided with the 40th anniversary reunion of my school. It was again an occasion with a lot of laughter, although I have to admit that I didn’t recognise or remember a number of my former class mates. Surely I wasn’t at school with these old men.
Simon and I had an idyllic trip up the west coast. We felt the sand under our feet, and the sunrises and sunsets were out of this world. We relaxed, walked and laughed a lot.
With my brother I visited District Six, or what remains of it, a haunting and sad experience, with little remaining of a community full of laughter and kwela music which, through its vibrancy and inclusivity, was an anathema to the apartheid regime.
My teenage years were wonderful, spent on beautiful beaches, playing sport, hanging out with friends. After all, I had the best of everything: I was white, male, privileged. But, as Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. South Africa exploded in 1976, when I was sixteen, with the Soweto Uprising during which 1,000 school children were killed by the apartheid police and military.
There remains such division, inequality, and injustice. The main difference is the colour of those in power. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that the first ANC government had stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on board. The biggest difference between Mandela’s government and that of Jacob Zuma is that competence and optimism has been replaced by corruption and incompetence. And it shows. Poverty remains so obvious.
Yet South Africa remains a country offering a warm welcome, and there is a lot of laughter, in spite of everything.
Returning to a grey, wet Brighton, everything seems depressed. I don’t know what the opposite of rose-tinted spectacle are, but at BHT we see on a daily basis the effect of poverty and homelessness, addiction and mental ill-health, and the intended/unintended consequences of the cruel welfare benefit system which causes unnecessary hardship.
We were recently described as a “Ken Loach Theme Park”, a description I like. But our spectacles are bifocals because we see change happening on a daily basis – people moving off the streets, people in recovery from addiction, those coming to terms and living independently in spite of mental health problems, and people being housed and getting work.
And there is a lot of laughter. But I have in the back of my mind a comment of a client from way back when I was the manager of our Addiction Services. In a review meeting with clients, one said it would be great if they could have more fun. “Whatever fun is”, another client responded.
For those of us who are privileged, who have homes, who can afford holidays, even trips to South Africa, we must, I must, never forget that for many, in South Africa and here at home in Brighton, life is hard. We must do what we can to make life better for them.