We look after our own.
Racists do it. Revolutionaries do it. So do faiths and families, secret societies and stokvels, corporations and co-ops.
We’ve always done it; looked after the members of our tribe. Because that’s what we are.
We can pretend that we aren’t, and convince ourselves that we are modern individuals freewheeling through an impersonal urban landscape. But that’s not really true, because that landscape is criss-crossed with a thousand invisible fences, each demarcating the territory of another tribe.
Some of the fences are barbed: race, language and politics can be impossible to get past. Religion, too, can be dicey: those who belong and those who don’t are often kept apart like sheep from goats.
Other fences are gentler. Some tribes are held together by love or by the subtle bonds of friendship. Some just like discussing books or having a drink together.
But even these more tender boundaries can be inflexible. You are the friend I go to with my problems, or you are not. You’re in the book club or you’re not. At any particular moment, every single one of us is inside or outside, indigenous or alien.
But sometimes someone comes along who belongs to all of us. Who stands for all of us. Who reminds us that, beyond the fences of our small, busy, noisy tribes, we share a greater humanity, a humanity that must be protected. And Darryn August is that person.
Mr August, you will have heard by now, tried to persuade a group of thieves on a Cape Town train to move along. He has played down any heroism on his part, denying that he put himself between the gang and frightened passengers. But what is difficult to dispute is that he confronted the thieves with humanity and reason. They replied with brutality. He was stabbed and beaten. He was thrown from the train. He hit a tree. His back was broken.
I know the bad news. I know we are being governed by cynical Svengalis who make themselves rich by preaching solidarity with the poor. I know we have two economies that show no signs of growing closer together. I know that South African men are waging war on South African women. I know that racism has cut as deeply and as inextricably into our relationships as a barbed- wire fence that has grown into a tree, and that it is being taught to white people who weren’t even born in 1994.
But I also know that, despite what we might tell ourselves, we still need each other and a shared vision of where we want to go. Some might call this naïve or diversionary. But I think that sometimes, when the path seems too steep or too rocky, you need to pause and look up. You need to rest your eyes on the horizon and remember why you were excited by the destination in the first place.
That destination is not some rainbow Utopia, a history-and accountability-free holiday camp for middle-class fantasists. Rather it is a country where humanity is backed up by courage; where conscious citizens make difficult choices, and stand up for more than their own.
Darryn August is a citizen of the country we could be. I’m sure he has many of the foibles and failings that we all have. But in that moment on that train, when he stepped forward – believing people will ultimately do what’s right, but also having the courage to act even if they proved him wrong – he became the best of us.
Our politicians trumpet courage and self-sacrifice but none of them is stepping in front of a knife. Then again, neither am I. But I can do a tiny bit. I can give money to Darryn, and so can you. He was looking after us. Now it’s time for us to look after him.
Many are already contributing. The Everest for August fundraising drive on backabuddy.co.za had raised R230,000 at the time of writing, and other collections have started. The outpourings of love and money have been moving. But they will slow and stop, and the years ahead are going to be frighteningly expensive for Darryn and his family.
So let’s pause, just for a moment, and step over our invisible fences, out of our tribes, to gather around Darryn and to tell him that he is one of our own. And we look after our own.
Darryn’s life has been changed. Now let’s change it again. Let’s get this one thing right and make sure that he has all the money he needs.
We’ll get back to the politics and the racism soon. The steep, rocky path will wait for us. But just for now, let’s look up at the horizon and remember the place to which we want to go.
To donate to Darryn, click here.
First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail