Forgot your password?

We just sent you an email, containing instructions for how to reset your password.

Sign in

  • Yesterday I put on my suit and drove to the main campus for High School Graduation.

    The drive from Pretoria to the north side of Jo’burg is quiet on a Saturday afternoon. I drove past the long mazes of walled and electric fenced complexes that connect the once separate cities. The open stretches of veld are thick with tall brown grasses. In some places stacked bundles of thatch wait by the road. I can see the heads of women above the stiff tufts and the slow swing of their machetes through the late fall haze of smoke and dust. Orange arcs of fire range through the fields. At one point the fires flared hot and angry across the road. The car ahead put on his hazard lights and vanished into the swirling smoke and ash. I followed and hoped no one was coming the other way.

    I arrived at graduation smelling like I had been camping.

    48 graduates in their gowns and caps sat in the stack of blue bleachers facing parents and families, teachers and staff. 48 graduates from 23 different countries facing the future, slightly bemused to be so formal. Standing one at a time to receive their diplomas, looking poised and adult at the camera until they smiled and were suddenly kids again.

    The usual speeches were made thanking friends for being there, wondering about the future, pledging to stay in touch. The school’s director gave a ramble on the theme of listening to your parents. All pretty standard fare.

    Until Alistair Sparks was introduced as the graduation speaker. Alistair began his journalism career with the birth of apartheid. He covered the creation of homelands and the rise of resistance. From crooks to kings he’s interviewed them all.

    You have a unique opportunity, he told the graduates. You already know the benefits of diversity. You have experienced first-hand how differences and varying perspectives enrich our lives.

    He didn’t sugar coat it. You are walking out into a troubled world at a time of great change and challenge, he told them. A time when, as young people, you will want to take action.

    He looked out across 80 years of experience and reflected that ideologies have risen up proclaiming to be the way, promising to create a better world for all. They have, in fact, ended up being responsible for some of the greatest conflicts the world has known. And this is not surprising because if you feel you have the truth then you cannot allow anyone to stand in the way.

    He paused and let that last line sink in.

    The graduates squirmed a bit, attention spans these days, you know.

    I talked with Nelson Mandela, he said softly.

    Now he had their attention.

    About the time he was on Robben Island, he went on. His jailors were not the cream of white society. They were uneducated, poorly paid, brutal men. Nelson Mandela told me he needed to understand them to know what made the Afrikaaner so determined to deny the black majority their place. He listened to their family problems, their troubles with finances, their conflicts with landlords and bill collectors. Because of his legal training he was able to offer advice. Ironic, the prisoner advising his jailors on legal matters. From this experience, Nelson told me, from this understanding came the realization that the armed wing of the ANC (African National Congress) must be accompanied with a reconciliation process.

    Alistair turned away from the microphone and faced the graduates. You already know the power of diversity, you have already lived it. You know that if we are to be a global village we can and must learn to live together. This must be the message you take forward.

    If it had been said as slogans they wouldn’t have listened but in the form of a story. From someone who had been there. Well, it was real.

    48 graduates from 23 nations facing a common future. Our future.

    I drove home. The fires had burnt themselves out. Only a few termite mounds smouldered and smoked along the road. In the distance I could see the thick columns of smoke rising from new fires.
    • Share

    Connected stories:


Collections let you gather your favorite stories into shareable groups.

To collect stories, please become a Citizen.

    Copy and paste this embed code into your web page:

    px wide
    px tall
    Send this story to a friend:
    Would you like to send another?

      To retell stories, please .

        Sprouting stories lets you respond with a story of your own — like telling stories ’round a campfire.

        To sprout stories, please .

            Better browser, please.

            To view Cowbird, please use the latest version of Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, or Internet Explorer.