“Where did you two meet?”
“That’s easy. He [me] is an activist and I [Napoleon] am an activist. We were introduced by another activist [Nigel Branken].”
That was part of an exchange that happened yesterday as i got to hang out with my friend Napoleon Webster who i hadn’t seen since he was released from spending over 200 days in prison for a crime he did not commit. But let’s backpedal a bit…
The Marikana Coffee
Probably about two years ago now, i was up in Joburg having coffee with my friend Nigel Branken who introduced me to Napoleon. We had a very interesting, highly charged political conversation and the next thing i knew Nigel and Napoleon and one of each of their sons and myself were in a car driving to Marikana, some two hours away from where we were staying in Hillbrow.
i had fairly recently finally got to watch the documentary ‘Miners Shot Down’ which gives some of the story in which 44 people were killed during Mineworkers strike action for a living wage in August 2012. So i had a more clearer understanding of what went down at Marikana and Napoleon had been in the midst of all the protest action, although if i remember correctly he was not there on the day of the main violence.
So it was a super powerful encounter and a huge privilege to be able to walk in the very places where it had all gone down and hear a lot more of the background story and Napoleon’s perspective on the whole thing. As he mentioned yesterday to my friend Brad who had come with me to meet Napoleon, we spoke into the night until words became sleep” which is such a beautiful image that captures our first time of hanging out.
Cape Town Coffee and a Smoke
Then two days ago i log into Facebook and there is a picture of Napoleon having just arrived in Cape Town and saying, ‘Am sitting in Cape Town. Where are my brothers?’ and tags me with about four or five other guys. i gave him a call and when he heard my voice on the phone he just gave this deep laugh of recognition which was so good to hear. We organised to meet up and i asked my buddy Brad if he could give me a ride cos i imagined he would really dig the encounter and we met up yesterday afternoon at Food Lovers in Cape Town.
Then something happened that impacted me on such a deep level. Napoleon and Brad and i are sitting outside chatting and this white middle-aged homeless guy comes and asks Napoleon for a light.
Napoleon held up his box of matches and said, “ten cents for a stick” and so inwardly i’m thinking, ‘Wo, is this going to be a cringeworthy moment?’ But then he said to the guy, ‘Do you rather want a cigarette?’ and pulls a cigarette out of his box and offers it to the guy and then passes the matches to him.
Then as the guy was lighting the cigarette Napoleon asked him his name and after they both stumbled over each other’s names, Napoleon asks Corne [“like Morne with a C”] if he knows of Marikana. The guy shakes his head. “Are you South African and you don’t know Marikana?” [again, my internal cringe is going of – what’s going to happen now?]
But Napoleon doesn’t let him off – “Do you know Lonmin?” [the mining company involved in the Marikana dispute] and now i am thinking, “Well that is a thousand times less likely’ and again the guy shakes his head, signaling no. When Napoleon persists by saying ‘the mining company’ Corne finally shows recognition and alludes to the massacre that took place. “I am from there”, Napoleon proudly announces.
What followed, i know my words will be inadequate to fully capture, cos you really did need to be there, was Napoleon identifying with the living-on-the-street lifestlye the man was currently experiencing “I was there” and how for him it was a time when things were going badly in life and it was used to fix him and grow him. So he told the guy, “Don’t worry. You are being fixed. This can be a good time for you.”
The significance for me of all this was that it happened in the middle of a conversation. Napoleon is hanging out with his friends and is interrupted and his whole focus and attention went to this man and he acknowledged and offered up dignity in a situation where most people, myself definitely included, would have been thinking, ‘How do i get rid of this irritation/pest/interruption?’ And he stuck with him until he had shared what he wanted to say.
Later on, when Napoleon was sharing about some of the political involvements he has [he is a counsellor for Marikana district], he spoke about how he is not in it for himself but it is all about the people. And he didn’t have to say that, because i had already witnessed it. This interaction with Corne, a down and out guy on the street just wanting a light for his smoke, was a moment of really seeing someone, identifying with their pain and speaking life to them.
As someone who tries to follow Jesus, that is the person who comes immediately to mind, because this is so much how Jesus seems to have operated, putting the ‘important things’ of life on hold to notice someone who is pushed to the side or marginalised by the crowd or society or the religious institutions and bringing them center stage and speaking life to them.
It certainly caused me to feel shame as to how good i am at doing that very thing. i can talk about it easily enough and i can call others to do the same. But in the reality of this moment of opportunity, i had to see myself as someone who would not have acted with such class and deep profound compassion.
So i am super grateful for another chance to hang out with my friend and if it wasn’t surreal enough that after one sleepover he considers me a friend, we drove him to the Taj hotel for literally a five-minute encounter with Mmusi Maimane [as one does] before dropping him off at the taxi rank.
i hope that encounter was significant for Corne and that Napoleon’s words will echo in his head and heart at night and hopefully propel him on to greater things. It definitely was for me and the strongest encouragement to really give focus and attention to people around me in need.
The reason Napoleon gave for wanting to meet me is that he is looking to raise funds for the lawyer of the other co-accused in the case he was arrested for and found not guilty in. They need just over R100 000 which is a lot of money for individuals like me, but not so much for corporations and people with big piles of money lying around. If you want to be connected to Napoleon to help out with this or find out more, let me know. In the meantime, let’s all learn from his lesson and really treat everyone around us with the utmost respect and compassion.