A short sad word.
First about a man named Mr. Zulu, whose name means “Sky”, who was a student and is no longer a student. He has died yesterday at his very young age and will grow no older. He will never serve his people or his nation or even his family or himself again. He died after a short illness and perhaps that means what you think it means and perhaps it means nothing of the kind. It does not matter. Mr. Zulu is dead. He is no longer a creative writer, an answerer of questions, a contributer of ideas, a lifter of spirits. He is nothing any more. No doubt he was something to many people whose lives are left emptier. Perhaps he might have had the chance to do this for many, many people had he lived long enough, but he did not.
Second about a man who lived more than two and a half times as long as Mr. Zulu and yet did not live long enough, who died today. His name was Dr. Ivan Toms. He was found dead in his home. We do not know what he died of except that it appears to have been natural causes. Knowing what we know about Dr. Toms, natural causes does not mean quite what it would mean for most people.
Dr. Toms was a medical doctor and after completing his time in medical school he went to the Army. While he was a doctor for the Army he was asked to go to a rural area and act as an intelligence officer, but he refused because he did not believe in spying on the people. They sent him off anyway into a faraway place in what is now KwaZulu-Natal. Strangely, Dr. Toms did not, like most white South Africans, decide that the misery and poverty and sickness which surrounded him was a natural product of being black. It occurred to him that, rather, it was a natural product of the privileges which came with his being white. He wished to do something about that. This was very strange indeed.
Dr. Toms was a Christian. The Creator has not a lot of time for Christians but Dr. Toms was not your usual kind of Christian. He seemed actually to have read the Gospels and thought about them, like Dr. Martin Luther King whose “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” the Creator was teaching to a class which no longer included Mr. Zulu. As a Christian Dr. Toms decided to practice medicine with a form of human responsibility. He assisted in setting up a clinic in Crossroads in Cape Town.
You are familiar with Crossroads? It was, and is, a favela, a squatter-camp — “informal settlement” is the fashionable euphemism. A cluster of corrugated-iron and wood and plastic huts, a fire hazard, a disease hazard, a miserable dumping ground for people discarded by society, to which people flooded because the alternatives were worse. Now at least it has roads and electricity cables and toilets and water and a kind of security. In the nineteen-seventies it had none of these things, and it had policeman charging through Crossroads trying to force people out because Cape Town fell within the “Coloured Labour Preference Area”: blacks were not supposed to be there. Yes, this happened, thirty years ago, and we have forgotten so quickly!
Then came the nineteen-eighties and the attempt to destroy Crossroads and its sister KTC altogether, breaking down houses with front-end loaders and turfing people out into freezing rain to die, or to move to the distant hovels of Khayelitsha thirty kilometres down the road. There was Dr. Toms, now not only trying to keep babies and old people alive, but picking bird-shot out of eyes and trying to keep a teargassed child’s bronchiae open long enough for it to take a life-sustaining breath. Through his clinic came an endless parade of student helpers, few of whom were not radicalised, not by Dr. Toms’ politics, but by what they saw there and what they saw him doing there.
Time went on and brought a movement to struggle against the hideous militarisation of apartheid, and Dr. Toms took part in that, and eventually served as a focal point of a call for the military to be withdrawn from occupying black townships, fasting for twenty-one days in protest against the occupation. He seriously damaged his health by that fast. Then he was off to Nicaragua on a solidarity trip. It is fashionable to mock those trips and pretend that because Nicaragua’s fledgling democracy was eventually crushed by the Americans, it was doomed and its supporters were fools. What Dr. Toms came back with was not foolish obedience, but delight at being, for the first time in his life, in a country where one could salute the flag and sing the national anthem without shame. How wondrous to experience normal patriotism!
Time rolled on again and the apartheid state crushed the anti-military movement, but Dr. Toms survived, was called up to serve in the military once more, and refused to serve. Instead he faced trial and imprisonment for eighteen months (an artful system whereby one could be imprisoned again and again, whereas a person simply refusing to serve at all would face six years in prison). Dr. Toms, unluckily, went in at a time when he had to serve his full sentence. He served as an example to many others who declared their refusal to serve, some of whom also dared to go to prison for their beliefs.
When he emerged from prison he declared himself unrepentant. He had many stories of the harsh life which prisoners lead; his friend who made necklaces out of the pigs’ teeth found in the daily stew. Maybe the experience had aged him more than he realised, but he obviously had no regrets.
Then came liberation and work within the ANC which he had always supported. And then — political office, opportunities for perquisites and directorships and brushes with the law and defiant lies and criminality? No. Living in the same small house as before. Hard work in the Cape Town medical community, eventually rising up to become one of the leading lights of the municipal health-care system and one of the few people in that unfortunately dysfunctional municipality who consistently did good work. But, no doubt, at a cost in physical and psychological well-being. He died of meningitis; no doubt he thought he had a headache from overwork and took plenty of Myprodol to dull the pain during meetings until he passed out.
And now he is dead, and there are few to replace him, if any.
For such people as Mr. Zulu and Dr. Toms, the Creator would like to provide elegies, but there is no talent here for that. Instead a little may be stolen from W H Auden to give some point to the Creator’s mood, a glummish passage from “As I Walked Out One Evening”:
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
“In the burrows of the Nightmare,
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
“In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
Tomorrow or today.
“Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.
“O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.
“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.”