Updated 08 August 2013

SA's quiet heroes

Real people doing real things – brave things. Are you one of them?

There are many real winners in our society whose achievements never reach the headlines.

Their achievements happen quietly in homes and workplaces all over South Africa. And there are no cheering crowds and no photographers and no press conferences. This is their podium.

Grandmothers. Ask around and you'll be surprised to find out how many people around you were brought up by grandparents, or more particularly by grandmothers. Often while their parents went out to work, or migrated to cities to find jobs, or after their parents died in some way. Where would our nation be without all those millions of grandparents who do the impossible by raising, sending to school and feeding children, sometimes on their state pensions?

Nurses, paramedics, teachers and policemen. These people form the very fabric on which our society rests. They may be underpaid, but take them away, and you would be surprised at how quickly everything falls apart. Their work is dangerous, often unpleasant and carries an enormous level of responsibility, but they save lives and are often the first port of call for people in distress. And those people who dedicate their time and their lives to helping others, with little reward to themselves, truly deserve a gold medal.

People who work night shift. Whether these are security guards, people answering Lifeline telephones, people who clean offices at night, journalists, kitchen staff, people who work in emergency call centres, workers on night shift, nurses and doctors in trauma units – these are all people who do important jobs. And they're prepared to lose sleep over it. Next time you snuggle into your bed at midnight, spare a thought for those people who are just getting up to go to work.

Single parents. Whether as a result of losing a spouse through death or divorce, or not getting married, being a single parent is not a job for the fainthearted. If you have no one with whom to share this huge responsibility as well as the agonies and joys of parenthood, things can get very difficult at times. Being the sole breadwinner and the sole parent isn't funny. And in this country, with our high Aids stats, those that head up households, are often no more than teenagers themselves. And yet, so many healthy and happy children come from single-parent families. A big, gold medal for single mothers and single fathers.

Environmental activists. The Lung Association of the USA has a slogan: If you can't breathe, nothing else matters. If we don't have an earth to live on, if we don't have sunlight and clean water and air to breathe, all other concerns become trivial. The environmental activists of the world have a daunting task – they have to save the world, its plants and its animals, from human greed. Large sums of money on the short term often win over long-term environmental concerns. A gold medal for those dedicated people who take on this battle – it's one every single one of us should be fighting.

Crime survivors. The devastation of being hijacked, assaulted, raped or robbed is only known by those who have been through something like this. The trauma, the terror, the flashbacks, the injuries. We read about these things as they happen or we hear as they happen to friends and families. Or they even sometimes happen to us. Those who can survive something like this and learn to be happy again are true gold medallists. And so are the people who support loved ones through this long and painful process.

Cleaners. This includes both paid and unpaid cleaners. Imagine what offices and homes and streets and stadiums and beaches would look like without the people who clean. Often for a pittance of a salary, they do hard physical labour and receive very liitle recognition for it. But think about it like this – if the cleaner in your office quit, you'd know it long before you knew the HR manager or the accountant was no longer there.

The disabled. Being disabled in a country where facilities for disabled people are few and far between, cannot be easy. Yet, there are many disabled people who lead happy and fulfilling lives, are gainfully employed in the formal employment sector or who run their own businesses and who do a tremendous amount for others who are disabled. These people truly deserve recognition of some kind. A gold medal would be good.

The taxpayers. Right, these people or businesses are mostly not voluntary contributors. But where would this country be without its taxpayers? Where would the money come from for pensions, social welfare grants, upgrading of roads, social services, municipal services, the payment of the national debt, radio and TV broadcasts, elections, hospitals and education? Every single person who earns above a certain level of income, helps to keep this society together. A gold medal for every single one.

People who work and study. Working full-time is in itself no joke. Neither is studying full-time. But there are those unsung heroes who manage both at the same time. They work a full day, come home, cook and clean, feed the family and the settle down to their studies. There are people who do entire degrees by means of correspondence or evening classes. Who manages to do this? Special people, no doubt, who should be right up there with Olympic gold medallists.

Parents with disabled children. Having a normal child is not an easy thing. Imagine how much more of a lifestyle change it brings about when you have a child who is disabled in some way. The dedication of many of these parents, who, against all odds, do the best they can for their children, certainly deserves recognition of some kind. In fact, all parents, who make a real effort with their children, especially through difficult times, should be honoured in some way.

People who do their jobs well. These are the people who do not have the attitude of "Don't blame me, I only work here." These are the ones who do phone back when they say they will, who are cheerful, who really are able to answer customers' queries, who are real experts at whatever they do and who see a high level of service and professionalism as part and parcel of their job. They don't only deserve a gold medal, or a pat on the back: they deserve an increase.

Childcare workers. These are the selfless people who dedicate their lives to children in orphanages or in emergency shelters, or children, often HIV-positive, who are abandoned by their parents. Working long hours, often under difficult circumstances, they make a tremendous contribution to our society, on which is often taken for granted by society as a whole.

Volunteers. Many people in South Africa give their time and their expertise on a voluntary basis to others. These are the people who do hospital visiting, help out at animal refuges, do admin at large charity institutions, who help out at emergency call centres, or who, in some way or other make their expertise available to those who could not normally afford to pay market-related tariffs for their services.

Those who report cruelty. Many possible instances of cruelty to children, the elderly and animals are avoided by neighbours, teachers, social workers who are alert enough to see and hear the signs that something is seriously wrong and make a report to the various institutions. It's better to be proved wrong, than it is to wonder, after something disastrous has happened, whether you should perhaps have got involved. These people get involved.

Those who succeed at rehab. This must be one of the most difficult things on earth to tackle successfully. Not only are you deprived of the substance you've been using to survive, you also have to deal with all the stuff that your abuse has brought on – and head-on at that. And there are people who manage this. And it's probably more difficult than climbing Mount Everest.

Donors to worthy causes. Forget about the fact that many donations are tax deductible – it's still money these donors could have used to buy themselves something nice, or go on a nice, long holiday. But they choose to spread around the good fortune they have had. And lots of others benefit from this selflessness. Many hospices, night shelters, children's homes, old age homes, NGOs and animal shelters would not survive without these people. And they often expect nothing, least of all a gold medal, for their contributions.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated August 2013)


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