Monday, July 4, 2011

Real heroes.

A salute to those who teach us that not everything in life is about transaction.

Somewhere on a private nature reserve in the Little Karoo near Ladismith, Carl is building his dream home. Carl is a bare-foot self confessed social drop out from the psychology profession in Pretoria. He dabbled a bit in organic wine farming before being inspired, divinely or otherwise, by the idea of replicating a 300 year old cottage in a remote and serene part of the country that would cement his seclusion.

clip_image002 It’s not just any cottage, mind. Carl is copying the home of Wolraad Woltemade, that iconic 18th century South African hero. He is following every detail down to the manure floors and chicken house. The project is already some years in the making and difficulty in obtaining authentic materials frustrates progress. The original home still stands as a national monument as Little Zoar in Milnerton, and is the subject of a book written by its current owner.

I’m not surprised that someone like Carl could take the Woltemade legend to some excess. It is probably the most inspiring tale of selfless courage that this country has. But it would also not be surprising if it has been expunged from South African school history as part of our exaggerated need for historic cleansing. Yet it lives on in the minds of many and reminders exist everywhere: in school, suburb and street names, and legendary tug boats. Until 2002, South Africa’s highest award for civilian bravery still bore his name.

Anyone who has spent some time in the Cape between May and August, and has witnessed the Atlantic’s fury either from Seapoint or Blouberg will understand why the VOC or Dutch East India trading company, who governed the Cape in the 18th century, forbade ships to anchor in Table Bay in those months. By then, the Peninsula had already earned the name “Cape of Storms”. If you have seen the weather and seas at their worst, then you may get some inkling of Woltemade’s extraordinary feat.

Greedy ship captains pressed for time would often ignore the ban on anchoring in the Bay. So it was that De Jonge Thomas with some 200 passengers and crew on board found itself near the mouth of the Salt River on that stormy early morning of June the 1st, 1773. It broke anchor and started to break up after being driven onto a sand bar. A number of sailors and passengers perished in the cold and turbulent waters, some strong swimmers made it ashore, but others were left clinging to the hull. Wolraad’s son Christiaan was one of a detachment of guards sent to prevent spectators from looting cargo washed ashore. That was the scene confronting Wolraad, the local dairy farm manager for the Compagnie, when he arrived on horseback with provisions for his son.

Carl tells the story a bit differently from the history books. He believes Wolraad was close to 70 years old at the time, and his horse was not the magnificent steed that the legend portrays, but rather something of a poor man’s Seabiscuit.


Be that as it may, Woltemade had no hesitation in spurring the animal into the sea to rescue those in distress. When he approached, he urged two to jump into the water and grab hold of the horse’s tail. He did that 7 times, saving 14 people. By all accounts an exhausted Woltemade was advised against the 8th attempt and he himself saw the need for the horse to rest. But the hull started to break up further and the old man went into the sea for the last time. Sensing their last chance of being rescued too many of the panic struck victims grabbed hold of the horse and pulled it and rider under.

There is something very special about the Woltemade legend. There are others that have the same texture, perhaps not as dramatic and as legendary, but a distinct ingredient that sets them apart from other acts of courage and bravery. Like Raymond van Staden sacrificing his life to save a boy off Warner Beach, and Donald Mboto doing the same off St Michael’s beach. Then there’s John Cerqueira, who helped a disabled woman down 68 flights of stairs when the World Trade centre was collapsing around them. But the same ingredient can be found in the not so dramatic acts – like former Broadcast colleague Conrad Burke, who witnessed a miscreant carry three packs of energy drink past a helpless till lady without paying for them. Conrad confronted the petty thief on the street, forced him to hand over the goods and returned them to the store.

We tend to think of heroes in a much broader context, from admiration for talent and success in various fields, to political and military leaders and martyrs. Apart from the worship so facilely expressed for “celebrities”, some of whom have made little or no real contribution to our lives, heroism should imply some act of sacrifice, fortitude and courage. It tends to come more easily to those impassioned with some mission, religion or ideology – like martyrs. It also has some supporting ingredient for people whose job it is to defend, protect and serve: like soldiers, police and fire-fighters. Love, companionship and family are also powerful motives behind many acts of selflessness and heroism.

These may not be less deserving of our acclaim, but the acts of Woltemade and the others I mentioned are very special in one key regard: they were unconditional. They may have displayed different levels of courage, but they share one element in their magnificence. They were random acts of selflessness not inspired by ideology or any other motive, but simply by our humanity. They had no expectation of self-gratification, recognition, acclaim or material reward. Unlike many of the others, they attract unanimous celebration.

As such they go much further than the good they achieved at the time. They confirm our basic instinct and ability of caring for others and that this attribute enables us to confront even death with fearlessness, fortitude and dignity. They show us the power of being unconditional and where our true strength lies. They teach us the value of looking beyond the constraining walls of immediate self-interest and gratification. They teach us that not everything in life is about transaction. Indeed the most uplifting and character building acts seldom are.

We go through life with cynicism and a “what’s-in-it-for-me” mantle, haggling at every turn and stifling, if not destroying our true majesty. We are constantly disappointed and distressed when the conditions we set are not met, only to discover later that our expectations were unrealistic in the first place.

We are all capable of heroism. It does not have to be the ultimate sacrifice, but every act of selflessness builds on the other until we blossom into the full giving human beings we can be. This is the real role modelling we should adopt. This is the ultimate life skill we should teach in our homes and in our schools. It is also a skill that should be taught in business schools, for the business of the future is going to be based more solidly on the strategic foundations of generosity and caring for others.

It is an attribute that should be the distinguishing feature of all leaders in society, including business. It is one that clearly cannot be bought, only rewarded. The real tragedy of excessive pay levels is that they have tarnished the process of identifying the real leaders in our midst. By their very nature they contradict selfless intent and those who insist on and can only be bought with excessive material rewards are most likely the least qualified to lead. The essence of true leadership is to serve rather than to rule.

The benefits for us as individuals, society and mankind of heroic behaviour from the most modest to the grandest are beyond our wildest speculation.

I suspect that in the age we live in it could become the most important attribute for survival.

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