The Chance to be a Hero

Wolraad Woltemade“We need a hero,” Servaas is dressed in his black suit again. It’s an ominous sign. “Somebody with faith and conviction. It’s been ages since we had one.”

“Well, we have Mandela,” Precilla points out, “he didn’t do too badly. World-wide he is seen as a man of character.”

Kleinpiet shrugs. “That’s true. But once you go down that road, you end up labelling all the people who participated in the struggle, as heroes. And let me tell you: that’s a difficult one. We all welcomed democracy and the end of Apartheid, but that suddenly made all the soldiers in the regular army villains; and all the terrorists – beg your pardon, freedom fighters – heroes. Surely there’s something wrong with that picture?”

“Listen,” this time Servaas uses his church-voice; the one he reserves for making grave statements, “every conflict and every war must deliver a victor and a loser. Through all the ages, the victor gets the laurel leaves and the losers gets reminded about what a bad person or nation they had been. Check out the results of any war you’d like to mention: it’s always the same. And often, very often, the guys fighting from the losing corner have to be braver than the odds-on favourite, who has the backing of power, money and sentiment. I mean: if you know you’re outnumbered and outgunned, the natural reaction is to lie down and play dead. The hero is the man who is prepared to stand up for his principles despite what the world thinks.”

Kleinpiet drains his beer and scratches his head. “But there’s a problem. Take a country – any country – and you’ll find different ideologies floating around. People identify with their cultures and religions and language – good characteristics, all of them. The point is this: most people believe in God in one form or another. If there were a single unifying concept or ideal everybody could cling to, it would have been their faith in God. Tell me, Gertruida, how many churches are there in the world?”

“Oh, that’s a difficult one. There are 21 major religions, I know: about 3,7 million Christian congregations, encompassing  67,000 denominations.” She nods slowly. “So I get your point: every congregation puts a personal touch to their ministry. Because of that, splinter groups form and even more fragmentation takes place.”

“That’s what I’m trying to say.” Servaas signals for a beer. “If we can’t agree on a fundamental thing like religion, how on earth are we going to agree on matters of a more material kind?  It follows that no country represents a unified population. Capitalism trains us to be selfish. Democracy inadvertently suppresses the minorities. Socialism stunts ambition.  Religion – in contrast to what it should be – sparked more wars than any other single issue. No matter what you believe in, somewhere along the line you’d find a disgruntled group, deprived of their dreams. Look at Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Congo – it’s the same old story over and over again.”

“You make a good point, Servaas.” Gertruida tries to calm the old man down. “But maybe we’re going about this in the wrong way. You’re saying we need a hero; somebody like Jopie Fourie, who was shot because he didn’t want to go to war against South-West Africa. Or Wolraad Woltemade, who saved those people from the sea until he, himself, drowned. I agree they were true heroes, and we need to respect them for that.

“But you know, the days when villages were small and populations not as vast and compact like they are today; then the act of a single person may have influenced a lot of people. They became legends by the telling and the retelling of their stories, and over time they became famous. That is the hallmark of a true hero.”

“Are you saying we can only call somebody a hero in retrospect? Like after they die?” Precilla doesn’t like the idea. “What about rugby players or soccer stars? And Lady Gaga or Madonna? To many people they are heroes?”

“The issue is not how many records you sell, or how fast you run, Precilla, although modern society does tend to award sporting and entertaining superstars a type of hero status. Heroes, by definition, are exceptional people, so it’s natural for the people on the pavilions and in the stadiums to cheer exceptional performances.  To be a hero, however, you have to be principled. You have to make a difference to the world you live in. A true hero is somebody with humility, a giver rather than a taker, a changer of lives. That, I’m sure we all agree, is rare.”

Boggel gets on his crate to join the conversation. He’s listened carefully to the patrons, but feels they are missing the point completely.

“Here’s what I think. In days gone by, with a much smaller society, single acts by remarkable people made a big difference to society. The world has changed. We live in a global village with billions of people. There are lots of religions and all kinds of political views. The chances are almost zero that we’ll discover one single man or woman who’ll rise up from the masses to be somebody the world will admire for humility and service. Oh, there’ll be isolated cases, but even these politicians and sporting greats have a limited impact – and only on a segment of society.

“So… we need to redefine the word Hero. We must look at the smaller picture, like  in townships, suburbs, communities  and families – like it was in the old days. The global village is too large and too fragmented.  Servaas is right: we need heroes. But being a hero doesn’t mean you have to change the world, like wars and politics try to do. A hero is a person who tries to improve the lot of somebody else – even in the smallest of ways. It’s a selfless act, a generous gesture.

“And then there’s another point. Modern-day heroes should not be single persons any more. A modern-day hero is somebody who instils his vision for a better community on others. He is infectious. His enthusiasm creates other little heroes. Nowadays the true heroes are groups of people who make other people look at themselves and want to change.”

His speech leaves the group at the bar silent for quite some time.

“Okay.” Servaas clears his throat. “You’re saying we must not look for individuals any more. In the connected world we live in, groups will make the difference? It makes sense. But how do we get to the point where group-heroes come into being. Isn’t it an impossible dream?”

Boggel shakes his head. “No. It’s within the grasp of every community to be a hero-group. It’ll happen if governments and churches stop fragmenting society with politics and religion – and we know that won’t happen. Too many ministers – whether in church or parliament – have a vested interest in what they are doing. I know this is a generalisation, but just go with the argument for a while.

“Now, suppose a community starts working together. They live together, work together, support each other – because they have more things that bind them together than differences that drive them apart. Now that would be a hero-group, in my opinion.”

“It’ll also be a miracle,” Gertruida adds. “I have this mental picture of a little fountain in the desert, with lots of people living around it. Won’t there always be some fool who wants to have exclusive rights? To capitalise on the situation?”

“Good example, Gertruida.” Boggel hands her a new beer. “Now, if that community said no, we don’t want you to steal our water, they will not only have their fountain back, they’ll be heroes because they stood together as a group.”

“Then groups will affect other groups, until a country is a hero-group?”

“Right. Look at us in Rolbos. We have differences, but the Kalahari has taught us to live together. We are, quite frankly, a hero group. Lots of people visit us from time to time. They may be remarkably different to us. Maybe they go to another church. Maybe they belong to other cultures. Maybe they shop in malls. But … if they act kindly to those around them, we can start a world-wide hero-movement, right here, from Boggel’s Place. It can be done, if we look at the smaller picture around us. Families should have heroes. Friends should be heroes. The man sweeping the street can be a hero. The bigger picture will take care of itself, then.”

Boggel steps down from his crate to shoo Vrede from his cushion below the counter. It’s nice to talk about these things, he thinks. It’s great to dream about it, even. Maybe some day communities will, indeed, start sharing similarities rather than emphasising differences. It’ll upset a lot of politicians, that’s for sure; it may even result in (gasp!) churches joining hands; but it will change a lot of things for the better. Until then, he decides as he ruffles Vrede’s ears, we’ll just have to settle for the old heroes while we dream of new ones. Remembering Mandela and Woltemade is great, but it’ll be John and Jill Doe who’ll change the world in the future. And strangely, they won’t get a medal or a monument. They’ll be nameless, and it won’t worry them.

4 thoughts on “The Chance to be a Hero

  1. thehappyhugger

    You make a good point, Amos. Also, something I often think about is about how the world can decide on a universal language (and we have how many languages?) yet we cannot and will probably never, decide on a universal religion. I know it goes much deeper than me just merely saying this but if you think the universal language was decided out of necessity, in truth, a universal religion should be out of necessity too. Would that cause peace on earth? not sure.

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      Yes, we just love the old divide-and-rule, don’t we? We insist on emphasising differences and loathe looking for factors of common interest. So sad that we’ve done it with religion as well. Peace on earth? Only when we allow Love and Kindness to be more important than Me and Want…

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      Yep – that’s what I’d call a false hero. The media loves them. People pay good money to see them. They live in a bubble of publicity and make sure their ‘good deeds’ receive the maximum exposure. The true hero is the stranger who flashes you a smile, simply because it’s a nice day. Or the guy who allows you to slip into the only parking spot at the mall, despite waiting for it himself. Kindness, essentially, is the hallmark of heroism – and personal gain should never be part of it.


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