Why drastic political changes aren't the main changes we need

It was strange to live alongside apartheid’s ghost.

Yesterday I returned from my two and a half months in South Africa- with that I accomplished a dream. I still strongly remember telling somebody in the eighth grade that the two places I wanted to go most in the world were South Africa and Brazil. In addition to its culture, I’d always taken an interest in the nation’s history. I’m just old enough to have been alive for apartheid’s dying breath, yet still too young to have an active recollection of the birth of the New South Africa. However, the history was enough to weld my interest.

And seeing South Africa, nearly twenty years removed was a real eye opener. I’d always admired Mandela, and seen the collapse of apartheid as a celebrated piece of history. I truly believe in the path of nonviolence advocated by Mandela, and his implementation of forgiveness as his strategy towards reconciliation is in line with my core beliefs.

On my last Sunday, I visited them Maboneng precinct- a gentrified street (literally, one street and just a couple of blocks) which signified an oasis of safety, art, trendy coffee shops, and great food in the middle of Johannesburg’s gritty and violent centre. The contrast was drastic, and visible. To be a bit blunt, you could gauge an area’s security by its concentration of white people.

And on my way out of the country, through the airport, I drove through Alexandra, one of the city’s largest and roughest townships. These areas of shanty-style living were once the black subsections of the divided city. Today, it remains a hub of those marginalized due to racial and economic inequality.

Weeks prior, the centre’s director, Pastor Mike, had told me. “Apartheid may have ended, but it still lingers on in the way people live. South African life is still very divided among blacks, whites, Indians, and coloreds.”

Despite the formal and celebrated collapse of apartheid, it still lingered, spurred on by people’s mistrust, entitlements, prejudices, and a number of other ills. And I started to realize that the change South Africa needed wasn’t so much systematic, but personal.

And the more I chewed on this, the more I began to really see that this was true for more things in life than just South Africa. Changing a system is an incomplete transformation. Change must happen on an internal level and on an individual basis.

I think we might deceive ourselves a bit when we hope that changing the system will solve our problems overnight. And yet, we often act like it has the power to do so. That’s really what we think is at stake when we get so worked up about politics. Depending on who you talk to, Barack Obama is often portrayed as either savior of the USA, or as ruining the country.

But no matter what politicians you put in place, or policies you enact, or laws you change, people will be people. And only God can change people’s hearts. I’m not trying to totally undermine the importance of politics. I still think it was a very crucial thing that apartheid came to an end, that the US’s segregation laws were repealed, and so on. But I think when we view these things as the one-step solution to all of the world’s problems, it’s there that we trick ourselves, and that breeds all sorts of cynicism, hopelessness, and divisiveness. They’re simply manifestations of a much bigger change.

Perhaps it is tempting to hope for this overnight fix, because its way easier. Just lobby for the right things, and then? Problem solved. But if change happens on an individual, internal level, then what is required is an individualized investment. In people. Starting early, starting young. Being a presence. Loving unconditionally. And that takes time, energy, Love, patience, and commitment. It’s being in it for the long haul. Investing in people isn’t a one-time deal, nor is it easy, and it often won’t feel like the world-changing step that it is. But it is. Societies are reflections of their people, and people are shaped over time- not in an overnight fix. I thought about the kids at the centre where I’d been helping, and I realized, they’re on a path right now towards a future that could go one way or the other. And every teacher, role model, or influence that they have is so, so crucial.

And at the end, I see why its so important to serve “the one.” Long-time dedication to an individual investment is often less glamorous and more demanding than an overnight solution, but its impact is much, much deeper.

Philippe Lazaro2013, 5Cees