Photo: Anton Tushin / Ridus.ru via The Moscow Times
In a Moscow courtroom, as the verdict was read, the three handcuffed miscreants sat inside a “glass aquarium”. Two years in prison, and it was their own damned fault. Those girls were guilty. As the Moscow Times tells us, they “criminally colluded to commit a flagrant violation of social order, expressing manifest disrespect to society.”
Well, that’s what you get, ladies. You knew the risks. You understood the deal. You just couldn’t keep your riotous mouths shut, could you? Now you’ll have two years as a guest of the Rodina (Motherland) to think about it. And two of you have young children at home. Who’s going to mother them now? What were you thinking? You just had to make your disruptive point. I have no sympathy for you.
I do not understand what motivates these foolish and stubborn people to put everything they have on the line. Why can’t they just keep quiet and keep their heads down?
Cape Town. A few years ago. A boy named Tobias. A waiter at the conference center where I was speaking about anti-corruption laws and imperatives for business.
I should think of Tobias as a man, because he was 22 years old and had a wife back in Zimbabwe, where he sent most of his money every month. But it’s hard thinking of him as a man. He was small and slim and earnest, and looked like a teenager.I had just finished my speech and was feeling good. I always do. I have knowledge and opinions and something important to say. And I do it so darned well, with such flair. My statistics from Transparency International are up to date. My anecdotes are engaging and relevant and illuminating. I have a well-defined point of view - the honest capitalist - that seamlessly blends logic and justice, passion, compassion and mission. When I speak, audiences respond. Media report. Like anchorman Ron Burgundy, I tell myself I’m kind of a big deal.
Off the stage. Smile wide. Shake a lot of hands. Share business cards. Reconfirm dinner with that lady reporter (I love journalists). Head for the exit and the taxi stand.
“Excuse me,” says the small man in the waiter’s uniform. “May I talk with you, sir?”
I meet Tobias. He tells me his story briefly and articulately. I’m intrigued. And a little worried. We will meet for beer at a relatively safe place where town meets township.
“Because I want to be free, in my own country,” he stated. “Because I want my children to be free. Because I want all of my people to be free.”That sounds so simple, doesn’t it?
I had asked Tobias why he had the notion to return to Zimbabwe to work with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Didn’t he understand how dangerous that could be? Forget Mugabe. Think of yourself and your wife. Keep working and earning money, like the millions of other migrants from across Africa who have managed to find some kind of paying work in South Africa.
“No. I have thought a lot about this,” he told me. “I want to go home. I want to make things better. I want Mugabe to go, so we can be free.”I sighed. “Tobias, how can I explain this to you? Those people are… they will do anything to hold on to power. Anything. Do you understand? They torture. They rape. They kill. They make people disappear.”
“Yes,” he nodded. “That is why they must be stopped.”
I gazed at the small man holding a beer glass. “Tobias, it’s just not worth it.” I leaned forward and put my hand on his forearm. “It’s not. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth risking your life.”
His eyes fell to the table and his face made that pained grimace that’s so familiar, when Africans are gripped with intense frustration.
“With respect,” he said to preface his disrespect, “do you only talk about these things? Do you not do anything? Do you not even believe your own words?”
“Look, what do you want from me?” I snapped.
He sat up straighter. “I heard you talk today!” he fired back. “I heard you say that the stealing and the violence must stop. You talked about freedom and justice. You said that. You!”
“Of course, but my point—“
“I don’t want to get a gun!” he declared, as heads turned toward us around the bar. “I don’t want to shoot anyone. I want to go back to my home and talk to people. To bring them together and tell them the truth. To help them. To organize. I want to be a community organizer.”
A community organizer. Huh. It was late 2007, and a certain community organizer was on his way to making a little bit of history back in America. It seemed word had leaked out beyond our borders.
“Tobias,” I said more quietly, “what do you want from me?”
“You know some important people. I think you know some people who can help me. And you know what to say to people. To help them believe and to have hope. Will you help me?”
I shook my head at the stupid kid, but I said yes.
Tobias and I had exchanged email addresses and mobile numbers. We corresponded and we spoke, early in the morning for me in New York, or late in the evening for me in Asia. I provided him with a few contacts in Europe and South Africa. I helped him with some letters, and some newsletter articles, and some speeches for a candidate for the House of Assembly.
I was worried about the violence, about the risks, and I said so. I asked him to please think of his safety and that of his wife. To be patient. I cited the Bard on the better part of valor.
In March of 2008, I received a short email, full of enthusiasm and confidence and faith.
“Just to let you know that me and my family are alright and that your advice has proved to be very useful to us. That was so nice of you. How are you these days and is everything alright with you over there. The election is looking very good. I am doing good work. I am proud. With God on our side I know we will make it.”
I was traveling when I got the message, and I didn’t reply until I got home. My reply bounced back. The account was closed. His mobile number didn’t work anymore. I tried his former colleagues at the Cape Town conference center. I pressed a few contacts in Pretoria and Harare for a favor. I contacted a couple of international organizations, which really amounted to little more than putting Tobias’ name on a list.
People move on. That’s what I tell myself. People get new tech and contact info, and they move on. Tobias is fine, and his wife is fine, and they probably have a couple of nice little kids by now.
Now saying odd things on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mantalknow