When the elephant in the room is a bicycle

There once was a man. Think of a name for him. Go on…

He lived in a poor community in South Africa. He lived with his extended family – partner, children, sister and 2 brothers. In a small shack somewhere. He used his bicycle to get to his job as a car guard in a shopping mall in one of the nice parts of the city. One day he came home from work later than usual. Only an hour so, nothing to worry about. But he was so tired (it was after midnight after all), that he forgot to properly secure the door to his shack when he put the bicycle away inside.

In the middle of the night he woke up. He wasn’t sure why. He heard nothing unusual. Just the township night. So he went back to sleep. It was only when he woke up sharp at 5:15 a.m. as every other morning that he discovered what had woken him so suddenly. The door to his shack was ajar. The bike was gone. That was what had woken him. So he got to work late. Which meant he came home early, his job gone. Which meant he couldn’t buy the food his extended family relied on him for. Which meant …. well he kept looking for another job but they’re not easy to come by. Maybe he begged. Maybe he waited by the roadside with the other men every morning hoping for causal labour. Maybe he got ill waiting there in the early morning cold and the torrential winter rains. Maybe he picked another of the desperately few options open to him and out of desperation turned to crime. Maybe…  You decide.

There was another man. Think of a name for him. He was the one who stole the bicycle. He was desperate too. But his motives don’t matter for now. That’s for another day.  A few months later he realised what he’d done. He was in the church where he goes every Sunday. In the midst of the high ceremony of bells and smells, God speaks to him and he’s convicted of his sin of stealing the bicycle. So he leaves the church service, goes to the shack he took the bicycle from, and finds the owner. I’m the one who took it, he said. I realise now what I did was wrong. I’m very sorry. Please forgive me. I want to be reconciled to you so we can be brothers in Christ again.

The former owner of the bike is surprised. He appreciates the courage of the apology. But he’s also angry. You see losing the bike meant he lost his job. Losing the job meant … well, you know. So he told the man – thanks, but … where’s my bike?

Don’t let’s talk about that, comes the reply. That will get in the way of us getting reconciled. Forgive me, and we’ll move on.

Well, the first man says, I can’t move on. Because, you see, when you took my bike, this is what happened….

And he tells him. Everything. Except he can’t, because the ripples of a simple bike theft go on and on in ways we can scarcely comprehend. What he needs isn’t reconciliation. It’s called restitution.

There’s an elephant still lingering in many South African living rooms, churches, poorer communities and nice suburbs. It’s effects linger from years ago. People displaced from communities they knew and loved way back when … and still love. Their old family homes now holiday homes for the better off – now the 2nd generation of better off. Or maybe it’s the death of a loved one years ago from health care she couldn’t afford. Which lead to food not making it to the table. Which lead to hunger, health problems and desperation. Which lead to… well, you decide.

These are painful issues – for everybody. They’re the usually unacknowledged elephant in the room (or, in the image of our story, the bicycle) that lurk behind so many conversations and decisions and actions…on a national, city-wide, community, family and personal level. People understandably want to forgive and move on.

But how do you?

How do you get to restitution?

You decide.

This post was written nearly a year ago and appeared in a couple of different places at the time. I’m posting it on this blog for the first time. It is Dave’s own expression of a metaphor developed by others to help explore the issue of restitution in South Africa. To read about how our good friends at The Warehouse are tackling this and other big issues in contemporary South Africa, have a root around their website here

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One thought on “When the elephant in the room is a bicycle

  1. Pingback: Telling a better story: gender discrimination and restitution | The Blog of David Meldrum

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