‘South Africans can rise to any challenge,’ said SA President Cyril Ramphosa in an address to the country during coronavirus lockdown. His sentiment is echoed by South African lawyer Mat Truscott, head of humanitarian policy at Oxfam International, who rates the ability of South Africans to cope with a crisis. Mat’s positive about the impact that ordinary people can have on the world, and says Covid’s restrictions may even change work relationships for the better. SUSAN BENTLEY asked him to elaborate. And by the way, Mat, how did you get into humanitarian work in the first place?
Mat (35) was born and brought up in Johannesburg, the son of a GP father and medical assistant mother. He was schooled at St David’s Marist Inanda and studied for a BA LLB at Wits University before completing an LLM in international law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Mat has worked in numerous countries advocating and lobbying for the rights of refugees and displaced people. He currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya
‘I STUDIED INTERNATIONAL LAW because I was young and foolish, and thought I could change the world. I’ve subsequently learnt this a difficult thing to do: the best I can hope for is to change myself, and that’s hard enough! Studying at Wits [University of the Witwatersrand], I was given the chance to work at the Wits Law Clinic assisting refugees. It was then that I started to become aware of the massive challenges that they faced. It scared me that many were engineers, teachers, small business owners, civil servants, families, people just like us, whose lives had been torn apart by war. So I started trying to see if I could do anything about it.
‘It may not feel that darkness is losing, the scale of suffering is overwhelming, but ultimately many people are coming together to make progress and things are getting better globally,’ says Mat Truscott, head of humanitarian policy at Oxfam. Here, he visits a water treatment facility set up by Oxfam in the Central African Republic | Photo: Oxfam/PA
I think people go into humanitarian work for many different reasons. But I suspect for many of us, or at least for me, trying to fix a broken world is maybe a way to deal with the problems and difficulties that we all have. One challenge for me was getting to grips with having grown up with the advantage of being a white South African male.
My work is life-giving, and has introduced me to incredible people. I’m not sure if I’ve actually helped anyone, but I know many, many people have helped me!
refugees are just like us
Most people know about the issues faced by refugees who have fled across borders. But the vast majority of displaced people are actually internally displaced: often by war and human rights abuses, but increasingly by climate-related events: more than 20 million people are internally displaced by extreme weather disasters every year and millions more have been driven from home by drought, rising sea levels and climate-fuelled disasters. While foreign aid is crucial for many of them, most are helped simply by friends and neighbours, communities who share what little they have. If we can all treat such people as our neighbours, assisting them in practical and humane ways, that’s when we make a difference.
I’ve seen how often humanity reaches out to humanity. It’s not about foreign humanitarians, it’s everyday people welcoming others into their homes and countries that really changes lives. In Uganda, for example, refugees were given land to work on which made them part of the country and part of the resolution of its challenges.
‘It’s everyday people welcoming others into their homes and countries that really changes lives,’ says Mat, photographed here in Kenya, where he lives
With the outbreak of Covid-19, we’re suddenly all thrust into a moment when those in need are our neighbours. How will we respond?
The impact of the virus will, undoubtedly, change our world. In the wake of such a crisis, can we do more to make the world a better, more equitable space? Change is clearly required on both a global and personal level. I’ve already noticed a change in people’s behaviour, simply on Zoom calls with my colleagues. Many are having to do our work from home, and consequently we’re getting glimpses of one another’s lives beyond the professional. As we discuss work issues, a cat might suddenly walk in front of the screen or you’ll hear a baby laughing in the background.
I think this is a positive change because we’re acknowledging the broader reality that our professional and home lives are both integral to who we are as human beings. We’re learning to see each other as whole people, not just workers at a desk. I hope that whatever our workspaces look like after Covid, we carry forward the lessons of flexibility and compassion we’re learning now.
‘We’re learning to see each other as whole people, not just workers at a desk,’ says Mat. Enjoy this teacher from St John’s DSG College in Pietermaritzburg making the transition from classroom to online teaching 🙂
I can’t speculate on the impact of coronavirus on South Africa on a macro level, but it’s clear it will bring profound changes. It’s important, however, to tackle this challenge thoughtfully and begin to think about how to ‘build back better’ once this is all over. What can this time teach us about working more effectively in tackling challenges and in a more equal way? How can we improve the health systems for all our population, and how do we put solid support structures in place to maintain the improvements?
Water and sanitation engineer Huguette Yago partners with Oxfam to run hygiene awareness sessions around coronavirus in Burkina Faso | Photo: Oxfam International
We have a young population which will hopefully be less affected by the virus, but we must still provide people with the essential tools to stop the spread: running water, soap and good sanitation. Government must commit to putting these things in place if we are to fight this pandemic successfully.
We don’t yet know what the economic impact of this pandemic will be, with the loss of jobs, or small businesses closing down. Many charities are struggling for funding after having to cancel their usual fundraising activities, yet the country is facing a potential situation of hugely increased need.
let’s remember: the Covid story isn’t just about me, it’s about all of us
It’s important to recognise that the impact is going to be felt at every level, but it will hit the poorest hardest. Those with no savings to rely on, no fridge to stockpile food, no space for social distancing. We each have to remember the story isn’t just about me, it’s about all of us. To stop this virus anywhere, we must stop it everywhere.
‘Let’s build back better,’ says Mat, pictured here in his native South Africa. ‘What can coronavirus teach us about tackling challenges in a more equal way?’
Our response needs to be one of compassion. Small actions, treating the person next to you as a neighbour, can make a difference. If a taxi driver cuts you off in traffic, realise that he may only be getting a tiny portion of his usual fare and still has a family to feed. When you see someone tired at the grocery store, be aware that they may be health care worker coming off a 12 to 16 hour work shift, and let them go in front of you in the queue.
Despite our differences, South Africans have shown before that they have an ability to stand together in a crisis with unity and understanding. I’ve personally seen through my work in various parts of the world that despite the darkness, there are so many people making a difference. And again, it is often everyday, ordinary people doing good work in small ways. I was just hearing about a youth organisation in one of the slums in Kenya that’s started an information campaign on how to wash your hands properly to prevent infection. These are the kinds of initiatives that can really save lives.
‘There are so many ordinary people doing good work in small ways,’ says Mat. Above and below, volunteers from Cape Town’s Happy Feet Youth Project work together to feed marginalised families during coronavirus lockdown. Numerous South Africans are now joining forces throughout the city and its suburbs to feed people less fortunate than themselves
What is encouraging is that, despite the current crisis, things overall have been getting better. Ebola is being well contained in The Democratic Republic of Congo. Infant mortality has been reduced globally. The number of people living in poverty has decreased. Making a difference comes slowly, but it does come. Covid-19 is a terrible setback to much of this progress but we will rebuild, and we must build back better. We work within broken systems, yet ultimately people are coming together to make progress. Oxfam itself had a sexual exploitation scandal in Haiti that seriously rocked the organisation, and it became top priority for us to safeguard the vulnerable. ‘Darkness is losing’ is a line from a favourite poem of mine. And it’s true.
Right now, the sheer scale of suffering is overwhelming, and it may not feel as if darkness is losing. I’m sure many are asking where God is in all this, and am I too. I’ve asked the same question many times, when looking both at the carnage of war and at the tragedies of daily life. I don’t have an answer. All I can offer is that I believe He’s with us in this, He’s weeping alongside us and He’s no stranger to our pain. With Easter having just come and gone, I hold on to the fact that despite the darkness of Good Friday, we call it good because we know that Sunday is coming.’
‘Covid-19 is a terrible setback but we will rebuild,’ says Mat, working here for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Belgium. ‘I believe God is with us in this’
Crossing global boundaries: while working in Palestine, Mat used to cycle across Israel’s Qalandia military checkpoint to avoid long pedestrian queues
‘HYGIENE BEATS POVERTY’ Be uplifted by mothers in the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrating an Oxfam water project