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Lessons South Africa Can Draw From Thai Cave Rescue

By now you've all seen some part of the story — 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped for thirteen days in the Luang Nang Non Cave, in Chiang Rai province in Thailand.

An absolute nightmare for a parent, this story has run like a roller-coaster with incredible moments of celebration interspersed with anxiety and fear.

What started as a simple trip into the caves turned into a nightmare on June 23, as flash flooding trapped the group in a cave. After nine days of intense searching, they were miraculously found, still alive, but trapped some two kilometres from the main entrance.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun said in a statement released by the government on Thursday and dated the day before, that the operation could not have been achieved without the unity, dedication and effort of all involved.

Which is the point I want to pick up on. What could have been a fairly small tragedy compared to some of the events we see around our country and the world on a daily basis, captured the imagination of the world and people decided to get involved. As Time.com reports:

What began as a small team of local responders looking for some lost boys snowballed by midweek into a multinational emergency response. Special forces and technical experts from more than half a dozen countries – including the United States – poured in to support Thai authorities in a desperate search that gripped the entire nation

What can South Africa learn from the cave?

Don't get me wrong here — I am not making light of the cave incident. It has grabbed my attention and had me camping out on The Guardian web page, where they had a minute-by-minute account of what was taking place the first few days after the boys had been found. Rather, what I am suggesting is that we look to tap into the kind of creative collective efforts that saw a group of nations decide to work together to achieve a common goal.

Let's be honest — there is enough to complain about in South Africa, and spaces where we definitely need to continue raising our voices until things get done. Education, health, petrol prices, political corruption, racism… and the list goes on.

For many people, the problems seem overwhelming — we know this, because they tell us repeatedly from their comfy colonial seats in Australia and England. We see your social media stone-throwing and we raise you a “Please go and throw a shrimp on the barbie”, or some other kind of foreign assimilation so that those of us who chose to remain here can get on with the work at hand.

We've had glimpses of it in world sporting events. The Rugby World Cup in 1995, winning the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996 and hosting the Soccer World Cup in 2010 are prime examples. But those have only lasted so long, and the giants that continue to oppress us quickly roar back to life and dominate the headlines once more.

How do we come together as a nation and forget about all the surrounding distractions for long enough to build something that works well for everyone, and in so doing somehow rescue a nation that is in danger of drowning? [we know our very own monsoon rains can strike at any time — we don't have unlimited time to get this right!]

Count the cost

Shortly before writing this article, I read that the cave incident had claimed its first victim. As Express news reports:

Samarn Poonan, a former member of Thailand's elite navy SEAL unit who was part of the rescue team in Chiang Rai, died on Thursday night after entering the cave to lay oxygen tanks along a potential exit route, the SEAL commander said.

This is devastating to read. But at the same time, it inspires some kind of incredible hope. Samarn Poonan would have been aware of the danger involved, and yet he still decided that it was worth risking, and ultimately forfeiting his life to try to help rescue those trapped in the cave.

This is the kind of selfless action that we see all over South Africa every day among the most diverse of people — old/young, black/white/Indian/coloured, all political parties, all religions, all sexualities — but too often in such small pockets that while making a difference to those around them, largely fail to register a blip on the overall picture at all.

It is happening. But how do we see it happen more?

And how much are each one of us prepared to give towards the greater goal of seeing our country actually live up to the dream of the Rainbow Nation that far too many of us feel has proved an imaginary oasis in the desert?

What if it took collectively building bridges together to dismantle the things in our past that still need to be shut down?

The bigger picture

What we can learn from the boys trapped in the cave is to narrow down our focus point. When it comes to rescuing the boys, the focus has been on rescuing the boys. How best do we do that? Nothing else seems to matter.

While South Africans are distracted by money and power and comfort and opportunity, we will struggle to move forward. But at the same time, we cannot ignore that there is still a huge amount of our past that lies unresolved — so words like “restitution” and “land” and “reconciliation” and “accountability” might feel like mountains too high for us to scale.

But thinking about the cave rescue, I had this crazy thought — and bear with me here for a moment. What if it took collectively building bridges together to dismantle the things in our past that still need to be shut down?

Reports from the Luang Nang Non Cave have strongly suggested immense unity and teamwork among different people who had previously not even met each other. As they collaborate and plan and share ideas and work together to implement those ideas, the relationship is happening.

No-one is working on the relationship aspect of the group, and I imagine nobody has “let's be good friends” as a primary objective for the work at hand. But these kinds of situations tend to form strong bonds between strangers, and friendships tend to emerge as bonus consequences at the end of the project.

Is there a way we can tap into that in South Africa? That doesn't need us to wait until government gets it right, or until all the sins of the past have been properly addressed? Is there the possibility that in the building of bridges together, as we see each other and recognise the humanity in each person, that a natural outworking of those relationships will be to make things right?

I have seen this work on a small scale and as mentioned, it is taking place all around the country in nonprofits and communities and places of worship and groups of friends. But how do we move it to the next level? And is it possible to do without the tragedy of a cave-like disaster to bring us all together?

Most importantly, where am I involved? Or where should I be?

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