Apartheid in South Africa was a violently oppressive system, one among many in history. And whenever there is oppression, there are always those who resist and fight against it. A once less well known freedom fighter is Tim Jenkin, now more well known because of a recent movie adaptation of his 1979 escape, along with two other political prisoners, from the Pretoria prison. It’s an inspiring tale of moral victory, a rare case where the persecuted individual gains his own release on his own terms and helps defeat injustice.
Along with a compatriot, he was arrested for setting off “leaflet bombs”. They were designed not to hurt people but to disseminate illegal literature in public areas. The purpose was to spread the message of moral struggle, to let the oppressed know they were not alone and to inform the oppressors that they would not be silenced. Having set off many of these devices, he was given a 12 year sentence and the other man 8 years. It was a punishment that might not have been so much for claims of terrorism as for being judged a race traitor and an enemy of the state.
From the moment he entered prison he schemed about escape. The guy obviously is a genius. If you didn’t know his escape actually happened, you’d think a story about it was contrived in the seeming impossibility of it. With the help of other prisoners, he spent years studying the structure of the prison, the mechanism of locks, and the patterns of the guards’ behavior. He used what limited resources they had access to in order to construct tools to defeat the system. The audacity of it was inspiring alone. Even in getting through dozens of locked doors, each with different keys, they still faced a sniper on the prison walls who would shoot on sight. It demonstrates how good fortune favors the prepared and the brave.
For all the good feeling that comes from a prison escape movie, it also reminds one of how much brilliance gets wasted in this world we are born into. For years, Jenkin used his talents to struggle against Apartheid and then, after caught, to escape. Imagine, in that same time period, what he could have accomplished if he had grown up in a free society and his mind had been set toward scientific discovery, technological innovation, medical cures, or simply public service. There is nothing wrong with dedicating one’s life to political activism and defiance of moral wrong, but one suspects he didn’t dream of that profession as a child.
Think of the American Founders. They weren’t raised to be revolutionaries nor was it what they aspired to. By an accident of fate, they found themselves in a struggle for freedom and liberty. Yet by interest and talent, many of them preferred to spend their free time committed to scientific experimentation and technological invention. Even in their politics, they weren’t out to destroy the old world but were inspired to build something new. If their situation had been different, Thomas Jefferson might now be remembered for having invented a swivel chair and Thomas Paine for designing an iron bridge.
“The science of government,” wrote John Adams, “it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
Paine admitted, “That there are men in all countries to whom a state of war is a mine of wealth, is a fact never to be doubted.” And such men were unwilling to assent to the independence of others. But elsewhere in The American Crisis, he stated that in the American colonies they came to the fight reluctantly, if with courageous resolve in the final measure. Peace, though it be desired, was not offered by a military empire that demanded submission or subjugation. Knowing the high cost of what defeat would entail, it was agreed that, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my children may have peace.” The ultimate aim remained peace — if not for one generation, then for the next.
Revolution was not an end to itself. Struggle was not its own reward that built character and uplifted the spirit. Overthrowing oppression was simply the work that had to be done to make possible a good society where the following generations could do something better with their time. In a world maybe not so different, instead of the slavery and indentured servitude of colonial imperialism, we of the present living generation face a banana republic and capitalist realism, lesser evilism and bullshit jobs. The human potential lost, the raw talent and capacity corrupted — the immensity of all that goes to waste.
We are kept so busy, endlessly preoccupied and stressed, that we have little time and energy left to seek something better, either for ourselves or our children and grandchildren. The few of us scheming for escape, rarely catch our breath long enough to dream about what we might do once no longer trapped in this Black Iron Prison, what might follow after. Struggle has come to define our existence and constrain our moral imagination. We need to remind ourselves of what we are hoping to accomplish, what kind of just and worthy society we wish to gift to the coming generations, what kind of peace they might have.