20 April 2024 | 08:50 AM

Stepping out and stepping up

Key Takeaways

AmaBhungane managing partner Sam Sole was recently (and unexpectedly) given an award by his old school, SACS. This is his acceptance speech: a challenge to a new generation facing the toughest problems ever.


When I was asked to accept this award and come and give a speech, I must admit I was a bit conflicted.

I wasn’t too fond of school nor most of my fellow scholars. But I am looking back on an institution and a self of more than 40 years ago – and both, I have to trust, have changed for the better.

The fact I am here tonight is also testimony to the persistence of your English teacher, Mr Southgate – and the important role that a good English teacher played in my own trajectory.

Indeed, I owe my own nickname, “Sam”, which has stuck with me my whole life, to my English teacher at SACS, Ali Abrahams. 

He also facilitated my first baby-steps of moral and political exploration, when he allowed me to give a talk to class about Apartheid in, I think grade 9, which was the fateful year of 1976, the year of the Soweto youth uprising.

So why am I here and what can I say to you that might be of some use across the 44 years since I sat where you are?

Firstly, let me say to the misfits and outsiders out there: there is hope.

I was not cool at school, and I’m probably not cool now.  But I have to say that the world is wider and more accommodating than the narrow bounds of a boys’ school and that the tortoise of persistence and commitment will usually outrun the hare of natural aptitude.

I come from a place of privilege, like many of you.

But being privileged comes with responsibility.

Much of what I am going to say may strike you as bleak.

I would urge you to take heed of Socrates’ view that “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

More broadly, as I think someone else said, a life without art or politics is no life at all. In living a life of introspection and awareness there is also excitement and growth.

Challenge and purpose are the very bedrock of a meaningful life – and you are of a generation that is going to have certain responsibilities thrust upon you, whether you wish for it or not.

You are like a class graduating in the 1930s on the eve of a global war.

You should not close your eyes to that reality, even if the process of dealing with it and finding your way takes a few years, as was the case with me.

Most of you will be from upper middle-class families.

And many if not most of you will have grown up in a bubble, like I did.

And, unfortunately, because of the failures of my generation and those before, that bubble, which was always both fragile and morally questionable, is no longer sustainable.

Part of your responsibility when you leave here is to pursue your own loss of innocence.

I do not mean this in a cynical way.

What I mean is that – despite the effort schools may make to promote outreach – you will most likely have been cocooned from the realities of those much worse off than you, both locally and globally.

You will certainly have been cocooned from the realities of how power and money work, how they reproduce themselves and prevent us from exercising agency over our own future, and that of the planet we all live on.

For me attending SACS in the late 70s, the very obvious and looming moral challenge was Apartheid.

Part of my sense of distance from many of my contemporaries at SACS is that so few of them embraced the challenge of dealing with that reality – and with the responsibility of the privilege that history had afforded us.

There were some honourable exceptions, but very few opted for a path of what one might very broadly call public service or public engagement in a socio-political sense.

A depressing proportion have left this country behind and carved out careers cut off from the social fabric that shaped them.

I must emphasise that none of this is easy or straightforward, and not everyone at SACS has the privilege I enjoyed as an 18-year-old to try and fail and try again.

It was also easy as a white middle-class boy in the Southern Suburbs to be almost totally screened off from the realities of Apartheid because of the racial spacial divides – via the Group Areas Act – that existed then and remain entrenched to this day.

The problem could also seem overwhelming.

I was in boarding school until my matric year – and in Grade 12 I stayed in a house with my older siblings who were working or at university.

I think it was in that year that I got on my bicycle one morning and pedalled out along the highway to Langa. I wanted to attend the Commissioners Courts that I had read about that processed passbook offences and deported offenders back to the Transkei or Ciskei homelands.

When I arrived at the building I was immediately approached by desperate black men – adults seeking the help of an ignorant youth. I never got inside. I got on my bike again and pedalled home overwhelmed by the scale of the human need that confronted me.

It took me a while to find journalism as a means by which I could try to wrestle to a small degree with the injustices of the world.

As you may know, I matriculated in 1979. I wanted to study drama, but my parents were not keen.

Given that I had been part of a pilot project at government schools to study computing I decided to do a BSc in Computer Science at UCT, but I was neither very good nor very interested.

I changed to a BA and then dropped out, worked for a bit, and then hitch-hiked in Europe for a month to try to decide whether to leave the country and escape the call-up for military service in the Apartheid defence force, something every white male was legally obliged to do.

After some internal struggle I returned and entered the SADF in mid-1984 as a rifleman – a private – at 6 SA Infantry Battalion in Grahamstown. That was my real education in the brutal realities of Apartheid, power, armies and related matters.

I returned to South Africa to confront not only these ugly realities of my country, but also confront my doubts about my own courage, whether I had what it takes to do much, to do anything.

On that score I think I can impart another lesson.

There are many paths up the mountain.

I don’t see myself as a courageous person. I see myself mainly as stubborn. Somebody who can endure.

In the army I proved something to myself. That I could endure a lot. A lot of stress. A lot of discomfort.

That would stand me in good stead in the job I was to come to occupy and still do – investigative journalism. I often tell my staff: it’s a marathon not a sprint – and that’s true of the examined life as well.

I wrote my first piece of published work about the actions of the police and military in the townships during the 1985 state of emergency.

It was smuggled out via the End Conscription Campaign and published anonymously (I was still in the army) on the front page of the International Herald Tribune, which was an international English language paper sold in 160 countries.

I have never again reached that level of success! But since then the use of journalism as a means for trying to hold power to account and expose injustice, greed and incompetence has been a lodestar for my career and my life.

That’s not to say there have not been errors, failures and costs.

Doing investigative journalism is something of an obsession.

My own family has carried a lot of the cost, including dealing with the stresses of my long working hours, fairly routine vilification, such as has happened on a larger scale with our current investigation, and the occasional serious threat to my personal security.

You now face challenges on a scale and intensity that dwarf any that I faced.

Those challenges are local. They are global. They are inexorable and they are overwhelming.

Not only do we have a worsening global security situation, from Ukraine to Palestine to the South China Sea, we have a global shift to authoritarianism and a retreat from rationality and restraint, including in what remains the most important global superpower, the United States, where the anti-democratic ambitions of Trump and much of the Republican Party are on open display.

Historian Niall Ferguson has warned that we are at serious risk of rerunning the 1930s with a “cascade of conflict that has the potential to escalate into a Third World War”.

But that is not the most dangerous threat we face.

Climate change is already starting to bring global upheaval and discontinuity at a scale and pace that beyond anything that humans have had to face.

I want to quote climate futurist Alex Steffen.

He writes: “The planetary crisis is an all-consuming crisis — a crisis of everything; a polycrisisthe Jackpot — because it is a set of discontinuities, of new realities for which old experience is a poor guide.”

He warns: “We’re also flying into a tornado of extinctions, ecosystem collapses, souring oceans, grim toxic accumulations, resource depletions, famines, evolving epidemics, and novel new dangers we’re still learning about.”

He adds: “Many — perhaps most — of those reading this have never lived through any genuine societal upheaval. But we will: Geopolitical shifts, mass migrations, conflicts over land and resources, asset bubbles collapsing, and economic turmoil as impacts hit and risks escalate.”

We are already witnessing many of these things.

But embracing that reality is one of the hardest but most necessary things we have to do because, as Steffen notes, one of the most obvious failures in the climate debate is that we are acting like we’re still making choices that our inaction has already made for us.

We are still pretending we have time, whereas the hour is very late.

We need to invest urgently and consciously in making our environments and our communities less brittle and more rugged.

This is an enormously difficult task, as our social, political and economic systems are set up to maximise individualism, consumption and corporate power.

Social media has led to the atomisation of audiences, the creation of echo chambers of outrage, the spread of bullshit and lies, the demise of regard for expertise and nuance.

Never before have we had the tools for the surveillance and manipulation of whole populations that governments and corporations now wield mostly thoughtlessly and for blind short-term gain.

The very language of community, of concepts that formed part of mainstream Western politics in the post war years, has become unfashionable and instead we have an intellectual and political landscape dominated by neo-liberalism and the unquestioned logic of the market.

There are few institutions nowadays that – like religious institutions in the past – still have the authority to bring people together.

The climate movement, thinking global and acting local, may offer a way forward – as does the broad and essential concept of justice that underpins everything, from inequality to climate change.

So you are going to have to prepare yourselves for the unexpected, to be able to lean in to uncertainty and understand that – similar to the time of the pandemic – acting quickly is more important by far than acting perfectly.

It doesn’t matter where or how small you start. It matters that you start.

You are going to have to be able to critically analyse news, information and misinformation.

You are going to have to acquire skills that your parents outsourced.

How to grow things, how to fix things, how to build, how to heal, how to judge character and risk, how to communicate, how to negotiate, how to build a community of shared resources and mutual support.

Of course, your lives will not be only about crisis – and of course you can’t be expected to have many real answers at this time of your lives, but you can be expected to – and you must – begin asking the questions.

Thank you.

NB: You can also read amaBhungane’s end of year newsletter here.

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