Once a week the StudyTrust office team assembles for reflection and prayer. At these meetings we always ask “what are our students and learners doing now?” and then we entrust them to God. This past Thursday morning we reflected on the present global financial crisis in the light of the Christian Scriptures and more specifically the words of the prophet Zephaniah. We agreed that the age old wisdom that deeds have consequences are still valid today. Jan related how the CEOs of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler each in his own private jet, flew from Detroit to Washington to ask the government for a bail-out to save their companies (and the entire US car industry) from ruin. They are laying off thousands of workers, but these top executives were still pocketing a salary of $3 million per month each. (I have subsequently learned that they have accepted a pay cut to $1 p.a. and that some of the companies are selling their private jets!).
It should be clear that the dominant economic system, fuelled by greed, does not have the internal braking mechanisms to keep it from crashing. The result of the present crisis is that millions of workers are losing their jobs while the middle classes are in a credit crunch that causes 7000 vehicles on average per week to be repossessed in South Africa. And the message is clear: We ain’t seen nothing yet.
Surviving on a social grant
We realise that to many of our student and learner fellows the crisis translates into even harder times at home. One of them (France S, studying ND Management at TUT) wrote me this in a letter recently: “Unexpectedly my father was laid off at work. From that month we then went back to the same old situation of surviving only on the social grant from the state and some of the savings the family had. I was the only person waking up in the morning going to the institution. What Studietrust has provided made me and my family to remain positive. Being unable to be in touch with the away-family, I have been surfing a lot on the StudyTrust website and reading the Newsletters featuring some of the family members – I was so uplifted and optimistic about my ambitions.”
That is why our prayers this past Thursday morning focused on those of our bursary students who are facing a situation at home of increased economic hardship.
For some time now I have been looking for something appropriate to write to our bursary students in my last Newsletter of the year. I then remembered what my late great friend, Pastor Piet Malori Mavhetha of the Nazarene Church in Folovhodwe in the Limpopo valley, once told me.
He had developed diabetes and went into a coma. He was rushed to the Donald Fraser Hospital at Vhufuli. He lied there at the end of his powers, not understanding why he had to suffer like that. He had given his whole life to combating poverty in some of the harshest environments in the country, where there is an abundance of sun and stones and a lack of almost everything else. Then, as he drifted in and out of the coma, he saw the face of the Christ in the corner of the ward and he heard the words, clearly, so that he never forgot them again, addressed to him: “You are worthy.” He got well and devoted the rest of his life to speaking those words wherever they were needed.
One of the reasons why people succumb to conspicuous consumption is the lack at the core of our very human existence. We are promised fullness of life if we buy certain products. We are made to believe that we will gain the acceptance and friendship that we crave if we display a particular brand. But it never happens. The remedy, according to the marketing messages, is to consume more of whatever is offered as the fulfillment to our innate sense of want.
Poor people, according to this view, are excluded from full humanity on account of not being able to buy their way into it. People from a poor background who make it into a better position are the most vulnerable. They often swallow the message of salvation through consumption, line, hook and sinker. Come a credit crunch and they are lost.
This is our counter-consumption message to our bursary students (or may-be counter-revolutionary if you consider how some youth leaders confuse the revolution with driving a Hummer): You are worthy. Wherever they are, wherever they go, they may know that in a small office somewhere in Johannesburg their names are known and revered. We selected them because they have chosen to fulfill their unique potential in spite of and struggling against considerable obstacles.
The last weeks of the year are devoted to selecting new bursary students for the next year from a total of around 4000 applications. Once again we have been struck by the quality of the young people who find their way to us. A candidate who plans to study for a B Com in Accounting said this when asked about his passion: “Numbers. To an extent that just compiling a budget gives me great joy.”
A young female prospective civil engineer described her passion thus: “The improvement of our country. I want to return to my township one day and remove every shack, dumping site and hazardous dam and make something beautiful of it.” Someone wrote about the greatest influence on her life: “Apart from Mother Theresa, my mother is my role model. She is an exceptional person who has had a difficult life, but she never complains. She hates it when people ‘plead poverty’.”
A young woman from a family where the father has been unemployed for years writes about her role model: “My father. He is a truly inspiring man. He never gives up. He taught me to love what I do and do what I love.”
This is what someone writes on her ideals for South Africa: “I see a country completely free from anything race-related. Everyone has equal rights. The struggles of the past are totally put to rest.”