Friday, 18 June 2010

Goldberg: I now have a million brothers and sisters - comrades too I hope..

It is always hard to write a report of Denis Goldberg speaking. You can rush at it in the height of the emotion or you can wait a bit and analyse. We've waited a bit.

There must be something that has half of the Scotland delegation at UNISON Conference 20101 unashamedly in tears. What is it?

Is it the straightforward honesty we treasure in Scotland, although we tend to approach it with a tad more bluntness?

Is it the knowledge that you are listening to someone who has given more to the cause than any of us will ever know?

Or is it because he speaks what we would love to see and love to be? What is clear is that he never takes the easy way out.

"I've been a bit of a Bolshie all my life", he told Conference.

He was moved. You don't often see that. He choked briefly before choosing the perfect words for the occasion of being granted honorary UNISON membership.

"You have A Million Voices project. I have a million brothers and sisters now", he said - but also added, "I hope it's also a million comrades - because there's a little bit of a difference". Warmth and the gentle political point.

He said he didn't hear the Palestine debate that took place before his presentation. But he could almost have written it. "Can we not attack Zionist policies without attacking all Jews?", he asked.

Of Israel, he added, "You have to find a way to tell the oppressor that they have to be liberated too … they have to have the chance to break away from their past and find a future."

This from a man who, just a few days after 9/11, had the courage to speak at a meeting in support of Palestine in Edinburgh, while all the confusion, anger and calls for retribution were at their height.

He had the honesty to voice the unsayable that many of us had been thinking. He said, "My first reaction was 'at last America has got a bloody nose', adding quickly, "then I thought of the thousands of innocent lives wasted. No excuse for that".

Freedom children

Denis spoke of his young country. A country where the 'freedom children' born after apartheid have not yet left school.

All is not easy. After the years of struggle, the ANC had to face the reality of power. ANC activists found themselves in government. Denis returned home to become an adviser to the Water Minister. Winning the vote was one thing. Building real equality was another.

How to turn around a country where the majority had lived under years of brutalisation? How to engage a nation more used to powerlessness than power? How do you address generations of enforced and structured poverty?

We hear he had come in for a bit of criticism earlier about South Africa's record on housing. There is no doubt that housing is a challenge. To be fair however, the government has built 2.8 million homes in the last 15 years.

Of course there is still a lot to do. You can't roll back decades of poverty and oppression overnight.

Our job should be to think first of supporting and understanding the development process, before sniping.

That is not to say Denis is not critical of the political directions and the behaviour of politicians in his homeland.

There is a fury that burns about politicians that do not respect the privilege and responsibility of their role. A role they would never have had without the sacrifices of Denis and his comrades.

But, as in all he does, he speaks with dignity, calmness and certainty. Perhaps that comes from the discipline of progressive communism through real life and death struggles. But I think the biggest influence is a basic humanity that underpins everything.

We should not have heroes in this movement. We should not worship the personality. But when we see an example of humanity and a proven record of being prepared to sacrifice to change the world for the better - albeit step by step in the new South Africa - we should listen.

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