There’s a story I’ve seen on Instagram recently about a man who staged a lone protest outside the White House with a candle during the Vietnam War, and, when he was challenged about whether he thought his little protest would really make any difference, he replied that he wasn’t coming there to change anyone in government but was standing vigil so that they didn’t change him. This simple action really resonated with me — he was making a stand so that the world didn’t wear away his humanity. It’s one of the small moments of joy that is keeping me going. I’ve found myself collecting these little pebbles of hope to hold close to my heart. Little moments like the opening of a library at a school, a garden in full bloom, a meditation before the start of a clay class I go to, a candlelit vigil that I attended a few nights ago.

About a month ago I dreamt about an incident that had happened during apartheid in the late 1980s — an indication of the state of the world and my mind recently that I should be reliving our dark past. It was a jumbled dream involving a protest march, the police and teargas. I woke up trying to recall what it was that must have given us and the generations that came before us hope to carry on.

Back then the apartheid South African government had declared a state of emergency amid a Defiance Campaign and was cracking down on any dissension. It looked pretty grim and it was hard work to not succumb to an overwhelming feeling of sheer helplessness that we, the oppressed, would every really truly overcome. I remembered sharing this with a friend who said to me that we simply had to win because we were in the majority. It didn’t feel like we were the majority — if there were so many of us, how could they keep beating, arresting, and silencing us? It felt like we were too little, and it seemed like the world didn’t care. I felt the same way now and doubted whether a protest march could change the course of world events, but I needed to do something, and showing up was at least constructive.

I was reminded of the solidarity of our protest marches and rallies, people showing up waving homemade banners and posters, chanting slogans, and singing freedom songs. And when the government banned large gatherings, we found other ways to come together — church services and funerals were often the only options. I remember traveling to London for the first time more than thirty years ago, and one of the first things we did was to find the vigil outside South Africa House (the South African embassy) on Trafalgar Square. There anti-apartheid protesters had been keeping a non-stop protest for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. The Non-Stop Picket organised by the City of London’s  Anti-Apartheid Group began on the 19th of April, 1986, and continued until 13 days after Nelson Mandela’s release from jail in February 1990. Songs were sung, slogans chanted, petitions signed, and leaflets distributed. I was so excited to join this vigil even though the apartheid government was in its last days. Here was proof of the support from the outside world that had sustained us when we needed to know that we were not alone. The solidarity of these actions was a source of hope that helped us to keep the faith in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

As I left to go to the march I realised how much has changed in South Africa since then — here I was going to a march unafraid of police, arrest, or tear gas. No one would be beaten or arrested for a T-shirt that they were wearing or a poster that they were carrying. Those were hard-fought-for freedoms that could not have been attained if no one had cared enough to show up. And when I arrived there, there were many others like me gathering to create a unity of strength and resilience. Amid the turmoil, the violence, and oppression, this is how we will sustain each other. We need to keep gathering together and draw strength from each other. We need to stay awake and tender, in order to stay human, like the sole protester during the Vietnam War. And we will hold each other up when we falter. We will find moments of joy and share them. We refuse to be blinded to the beauty around us. We will not be dehumanised.

Tags: hope Joy protests solidarity
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I was born and raised in Cape Town during apartheid. My writing focuses on the aftermath of slavery and apartheid.