Two school excursions, two very different outcomes.
Grade 8 pupils from Parktown Boys’ High School of Johannesburg are on an “orientation camp” at a lodge near Brits, about two hours’ drive out of the city. Grades 7 and 8 pupils from Manhattan Country School (MCS) of New York City are on the school’s 32nd annual Dr Martin Luther King, Jr Commemorative March.
In Brits, the boys sail the river on rafts they have just made. In New York, the boys and girls stop at four designated sites, at each of which a grade 8 pupil gives a short speech: first, at the Harriet Tubman Memorial, then Frederick Douglass Circle and the Joan of Arc statue, terminating at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger.
Out on the river, some boys fall into the water from their raft. They haul themselves back on. Later in the day, one of them remarks that Enoch Mpianzi, 13, seems to be missing. Hours afterwards, it is established that he drowned. In Manhattan, the young marchers return to MCS, all safely accounted for.
Enoch’s terrible death has prompted anger and calls for a speeded-up criminal inquiry. Questions abound about the teachers in charge of the excursion, the school and its principal. Answers to those are necessary and will come, but no answer will undo what happened to Enoch.
Enoch died for want of a life jacket. Others in South Africa and the world over die because they lack food, clothing, shelter, safety. They have no protection from racism, xenophobia and cultural and religious discrimination and prejudice.
In the MCS excursion honouring and remembering Martin Luther King Jr, those very injustices were invoked and King’s fight against them recalled. The march took place on Martin Luther King Jr Day, an American holiday observed on the third Monday of January to mark King’s birthday on 15 January.
King was a supreme orator gifted with a wonderful voice that he harnessed to move his arguments along and to move his listeners. There were a quarter of a million of them on 28 August 1963, when he gave one of the most famous speeches of all time, “I Have a Dream”. King’s speechwriter, the lawyer Clarence B Jones, spoke to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Outlook programme in 2011, shedding light on the writing of the speech and, more significantly, on the moment that King abandoned the prepared text and spoke spontaneously.
Jones is in the second half of the programme; the first has a fascinating interview with South African double bassist Leon Bosch, one of the world’s great musicians, who was arrested as a child for protesting against apartheid and discriminated against at a university music school in South Africa.
Jones confirmed that it was the gospel singer and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson who spurred King on, calling out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” That he did; King reprised the phrase “I have a dream” eight times.
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, King spoke to the vast crowd that had gathered. He was the 16th of 18 speakers at the event, which was part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The speech is immortal, iconic, a crystallisation of the civil rights movement delivered in a glorious swirl of rhetoric and righteousness.
Justly, “I Have a Dream” remains under copyright in the United States until 2038, and in the jurisdiction of other territories only very limited quotes may be taken from it under fair use or fair dealing. So, in that spirit:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
Remembering Enoch Mpianzi, South Africans might have a dream that their children will one day live in a nation where they will not be disadvantaged by the colour of their skin. They have a dream today.