Be It Nazi Germany Or Apartheid South Africa We Must Thank The Few Who Resist

Guardian, 20th January 2014

Discovering why only a minority of people actively resist adversity, in any country, at any time, even when injustice stares them in the face or affects them directly, can be tantalising.

Most people just get on with their lives and survive. In Nazi Germany, ignoring Hitler atrocities, villagers were in denial about nearby concentration camps. Yet a handful of German military chiefs lost their lives in a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944. Former French president François Mitterand was first involved in the Vichy collaborationist regime, and was then a founder member of one of the first armed resistance movements in France, the Maquis, resisting Nazi occupation from 1942.

Sometimes, individuals have simply had enough, such as Rosa Parks, a black American seamstress. Having travelled all her life on segregated buses in the Deep South, in 1955, on an impulse, she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger, triggering a wave of non-violent protests, which led to the great civil rights movement. In 1962, James Howard Meredith braved the Ku Klux Klan and angry white blockades to become the first black student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi.

Decorated twice for his Red Army service, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn never questioned Stalinist ideology until he was arrested in 1945 and sent to a forced labour camp for derogatory comments in a private letter about Stalin’s handling of the war. But that grim experience turned him into a fierce critic of Soviet totalitarianism, epitomised by the gulags, propelling him into exile.

The Oscar-nominated film 12 Years a Slave, in which Solomon Northup is kidnapped and oppressed by a sadistic slave master but rebels, shows how slavery was rationalised by American plantation owners, and more importantly by ordinary white Americans – just as the majority of white South Africans were socialised into believing apartheid was excusable.

A mass of people may be behind movements fighting oppression – indeed, a mass following is invariably a prerequisite to success and liberation – but activists, the courageous people who take risks and make sacrifices, are usually small in number.

In making a stand they may have no inkling of the consequences – like my South African-born parents, Adelaine and Walter Hain. Their first small steps later became large strides; their modest local actions led to national controversies.

When they were first asked to help, they gave no thought to where it might lead. Saying yes didn’t seem at all fateful. Adelaine and Walter rather stumbled, oblivious, into it all. At the time, in 1953, it just seemed the right thing to do, in keeping with their values of caring, decency, fairness and, perhaps equally important, their sense of duty.

Staying true to such principles was important to them, even if that eventually meant sacrificing the comforts and certainties of job, lifestyle, family, friends, security and indeed country. Maintaining standards was fundamental to trying to live a life of integrity where principles mattered.

They had no plan. One thing led to another and, once they had started, there was no way they felt they could walk away or let others down. Had the consequences been known at the beginning – harassment, jailing, banning, losing all means of income and, finally, exile in 1966 – they might have had cause to pause and reflect.

They joined Nelson Mandela’s freedom struggle in the 1950s and 60s, despite being much like their white peers and relatives – in their own words, “just an ordinary couple” living a fairly conventional family life. Yet the great mass of other whites, including all but one of their many close relatives, did nothing, instead perhaps enjoying their privileged lifestyle.

Wherever we live, under whatever system, however democratic or undemocratic, we all owe our liberty to a brave few – even if, sadly, most of us do little, if anything, to fight for it.