Autumn Thoughts on the Eve of Our Elections Hamilton Wende

Autumn Thoughts on the Eve of Our Elections Hamilton Wende

Memory is layered into our lives. Our understanding of what happened in the past grows as we grow. And the southern autumn for me for the last decade or so has always been a time for memories.

It has become for me a time to reflect on both the horror and the beauty of our world. Who will ever forget the clear brightness of that autumn morning in 1993 when Chris Hani was shot? And who can ever forget the vertigo of fear and the incandescent rage that swept the country as South Africa faced the abyss?

Today, looking back, the events seem scarcely real. There was the single white woman, the neighbour who somehow remembered the licence plate of the killer’s car and reported it to the police. Then Tokyo Sexwale and Gill Marcus rushing to the scene and speaking to the media. Tokyo Sexwale breaking down in tears, allowing his grief to speak to the world and, more importantly, to the hearts of South Africans. Then the police officers spotting the killer, Janus Walusz’, car and arresting him. Nelson Mandela appearing live on SABC, taking real power for the first time, appealing for calm where another, lesser, leader might have demanded vengeance.

Out of such moments of human choice and courage, some large and magnificent, others tiny and infinitely fragile, that hope is born, and grows. And a year later there was that other autumn. The exhilarating time in 1994 as the countdown to our first democratic elections ended in the spectacular sight of millions of South Africans standing in long queues voting as one nation for the first time in 350 years.

In the excitement of those heady days, I was working hard as a journalist covering the last steps in this country’s journey to democracy, caught up in the exuberance of the historic events unfolding in front of me. It was the best good news story of the decade.
Through all of that time I was only dimly aware of some disturbing images coming out of a country I had only heard of before: Rwanda. I knew vaguely that there was a civil war there that had been going on for some years, but I knew little about the deep underlying reasons for the killing that was happening.

The genocide in which some 750 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed began in the early autumn of 1994 when the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down. To this day, no one is sure who fired the missile, but it was the signal for the well-planned genocide to begin.

The campaign of murder was still taking place when I arrived as part of a film crew to make a documentary. We travelled from Uganda south into Rwanda where the empty hillsides and valleys were haunted by the silence of the dead and the rank odour of their rotting corpses. It was the start of an extraordinary voyage into the frightening, hidden recesses of the human soul – a journey that has been layered forever into my memory, an exploration that continues to this day.

People often ask me how it has been possible to recover from what it was we witnessed in Rwanda during the genocide. My answer to them took time and reflection to discover within myself. That answer comes out of something broader than what happened in Rwanda. It emerges from the aftermath Chris Hani’s death, from Nelson Mandela’s magnanimity and moral leadership, from the miracle of the elections in 1994, in fact from the very core of the South African experience. From the knowledge that to believe in the reality of hope, you must have understood the meaning of despair. And this country was all too often brought to the edge of despair. It really was not impossible that a violent catastrophe might have overwhelmed this country; but different choices were made – both by ordinary people and by its leaders. Those different choices have in the words of the poet Robert Frost ‘made all the difference.’ Despair was the road not taken.

I remember standing at a bar in Bujumbura in Burundi, a country like Rwanda, torn by fear and division between majority Hutu and minority Tutsi. In Burundi, the ruling Tutsis watched aghast as the Hutu extremists systematically set about trying to eliminate the Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda. I was talking to a Tutsi man who shook his head when he discovered I was a white South African. ‘We will never do what you did,’ he said to me. ‘We will never give up power. They will destroy us if we do.’
I tried to explain to him that, in fact, white South Africa had no other option. Without making that choice, and taking that step of faith in black South Africa, its destruction would have been inevitable.

There are no blueprints for solving human conflict, and South Africans should be careful at times of excessive pride over our own achievements. What I treasure most in South Africa today, though, are the myriad personal journeys that people have undertaken in the last decade and a half. Faced with the possibility of a cataclysm of racial war, the vast majority turned away from that horror and began to search within themselves for a different way to live, for a different way to see the other people who shared their country. There is still a long road ahead. Not everybody sees our future in the same way, but very few of us have forgotten the hard-won lessons of hope.

Winner of the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards for Columns and Opinion, 2023.

Winner of the 2022 National Press Club’s Journalist of the Year: Print/Online Features/ Investigative Journalism Award.

Author of 10 novels, including Red Air and House of War.

Author of a best-selling children’s adventure series called Arabella.

In television, he has worked for a number of international networks, including National Geographic, CNN, BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera English, ZDF, and ARD.

He has written hundreds of articles for publications including BBC, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others.