When I mentioned
solidarity, it was a new
word to my 18-year-old son
I rather regret the way the term 'solidarity' has fallen into disuse these days. It used to crop up in common parlance quite often in the far off 20th century. It was a new word to my 18-year-old son when I tried it out on him last week.
I understand some of the reasons it fell out of favour. The meaning was sucked out of it by the individualisation of British society and our transformation, in the 1980s and after, from citizens with rights to consumers with remedies.
Solidarity was also abused by labour movement leaders and politicians at national and local level who too often behaved like first world war generals in the way they moved their batallions about for a few yards of perceived political gain. 'Solidarity' was the answer that brooked no comeback to simple questions such as 'why exactly are we marching here or picketing there?'.
'Solidarity' began as the essential equaliser in conflicts between exploiting employers and workers who understood the value of standing together rather than allowing themselves to be divided, demeaned and defeated. In its latter days solidarity was too often invoked to justify the petty, the pointless and the doomed. It lost its meaning and along with it the hearts and minds of many of the rank and file.
Yet 'solidarity' was the word I reached for when trying to capture the essence of what my son, Isaac, is demonstrating in Durban, working as a volunteer with a street kids project in the city centre, SISCO, and with a broader Jabulani project, building on the connection established and maintained for more than a decade between his school, James Gillespie's in Edinburgh, and the High Schools of Zwelibanzi and latterly Dloko in the Durban Zulu township of Umlazi. 'Township' doesn't give a sense of the sprawl of shanties and newly built breeze-block houses in the rolling hills and valleys on the edge of Durban.
Durban/ eThekwini has a population close to that of Edinburgh – getting on for 600,000 – though there similarities end. Durban's several townships apparently add another three million or so. I don't know how anyone knows for sure. Don't think of Craigmillar or Easterhouse or Whitfield. Imagine Edinburgh with Manchester tacked on to it – but without the shops, nightclubs, street lights or major utilities.
The reason I want to reclaim the word solidarity is that to me it captures
the strength of the bonds that can be forged by sharing time, friendship
The connection established in 2001 by head teacher, Alex Wallace, built Zwelibanzi into the consciousness of several generations of pupils and staff. It was more than twinning and the occasional fundraiser. Students from each visited the other and met each other as fellow members of the human race. The annual Gillespie's senior pupils and leavers' show became a 'Diversecity' production with visitors from Umlazi doing both Zulu bits and Scottish bits.
Speaking to Lucky Peko last week in Umlazi he recalled his visit in 2009 and being asked to read 'A man's a man for a' that'. He says it was a profound moment for him. 'People in Edinburgh asked us questions about South Africa but many knew more about South Africa than we did. What Robert Burns showed me is that you mustn't say that, because you have a white or a black or a blue complexion, you are not my brother. As long as you are a human being, you are my brother.'
As well as the organised exchange visits, a number of last year's Gillespie’s school leavers have come back to Durban to spend weeks, months or, in Isaac's case, half a year to work in the schools and organisations; in this way effort can be sustained over the long haul of, for example, getting children off the street and away from the dangers they face in the struggle to survive. Alex Wallace, now retired, is devoting all his efforts to consolidating what he calls a broader Jabulani project (www.jabulaniproject.co.uk), so it doesn't depend on the ebb and flow of effort connected with the school year.
The reason I want to reclaim the word solidarity is that to me it captures the strength of the bonds that can be forged by sharing time, friendship and goodwill. There may be future leaders of our respective nations among them and, if so, who knows what benefits may accrue in 30 years time? But at 16 or 17 or 18 there is no advantage to be gained from the connections established. Nothing to show on the CV. There are no magic wands to solve every problem, save every childhood, nourish every ambition and preserve every potential. They are walking a while together.
Obviously it has been exciting, often eye-opening and sometimes scary. They are 16, 17 and 18 after all. Apparently drink has sometimes been taken.
But, from the envious outside, I can see that what the kids from Gillespie’s and Umlazi, even the street kids of SISCO in the city, have got from each other and what they have given each other is trust and confidence. And solidarity. Good for them.
John Forsyth has worked for BBC Radio and TV in London and ran his own independent production company in Scotland for 10 years, supplying programmes to BBC Radio 2, 3 4, 5 Live, Radio Scotland and the World Service. He's a former political editor of Scotland on Sunday and is now a freelance journalist and editorial consultant.