Article — From the December 2008 issue

Mandela’s Smile

Notes on South Africa

I did not struggle to be poor.
—Smuts Ngonyama, spokesman, African National Congress

The “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.
—Walter Benjamin

Dear Madiba,

This is the year of your ninetieth birthday; the whole earth is celebrating — to excess, I am tempted to say. Why? Because we cling to you, Nelson Mandela, as a living icon, as a liberation hero who did not renege on his commitments to freedom from oppression and justice for all, as the father of the rainbow nation, as a man of nearly incomprehensible moral resilience who walked out of prison after twenty-seven years of harsh incarceration and forced labor seemingly without bitterness or a thirst for revenge, and who is still giving unstintingly of himself. And I would add: because you are a wise and a curious and caring humanist with so much humor and such a lovely smile . . .

I, too, want to celebrate your achievements, your example, the frail dignity of your old age. And yet when a South African newspaper approached me to be among those invited to address you publicly on this occasion, I balked. Why? Partly because I find it obscene the way everybody and his or her partner — the ex-presidents and other vacuous and egomaniacal politicians, the starlets and coke-addled fashion models, the intellectually challenged and morally strained musicians, the hollow international jet set — treat you like some exotic teddy bear to slobber over. You have become both a vade mecum and a touchstone: those who touch you — but it must be in public and caught on camera — believe (make believe) that they have now been edified to a given moral rectitude. Of course they pay for it — exorbitant sums, I’m told. (Not for nothing your nickname, “Moneydeala”!) After all, your aura is for sale, and your entourage is very needy and greedy. I expect your many years of apprenticeship must mean that you see people for what they are, be they friend or foe, and that you are immune to sycophancy. Still, did you really distinguish between comradeship and obsequiousness? Your sense of fidelity is legendary. And I don’t think your self-deprecating humbleness is faked. Why, then, tolerate the scroungers, the charlatans, and the chancers feeding off you?

Why did you opt to bilk the rich — who are only too keen to pay and be seen to share, for charitable purposes or out of “base” instincts to protect their larger business interests, and thus cheaply identify with and benefit from a suggested correct political stance in the new dispensation? Was blackmail the better way of extracting the riches and privileges to be distributed? Were they vulnerable because they felt some guilt about the ways in which they accumulated their wealth? And was the possible alternative — socialist redistribution — too horrible to contemplate? Too horrible for whom? Or did you do this because you believed there was no other possibility of finding urgently needed support for the very poor and destitute, or to advance the positions of those close to you? Was this perhaps also just an expression of the prevalent materialist values of the world, and you didn’t want to strangle the geese producing golden eggs?

Forgive me if I do not discern the forest of deeper initiatives for social change because of the grandfatherly tree of easy gratification everybody wants to be seen stroking or carving his initials into. Sometimes I think our problem is not so much that we’re supposed to have come to “the end of history” but that historians no longer have the voice or the incentive to decrypt and transcribe an understanding of the events and movements shaping our world.

In due time there will probably be an assessment of your political career and the impact you had as president of the country — and you were nothing if not a consummate politician. Your being the historical vector for controlled compromise and change may ultimately be equated with statesmanship. Already we know you saved us from civil war. This should be remembered as your single most important legacy, and we must never forget how lucky we were. Some will say you could only do so by aborting the revolution.

But my own unease, now, is of a slightly different kind. I wish to express my deep affection for you. You are in so many ways like my late father — stubborn to the point of obstinacy, proud, upright, authoritarian, straight, but with deep resources of love and intense loyalty and probably with a sense of the absurd comedy of life as well. A cad also, when tactical considerations made it necessary. I think I’ve told you this.

And now you are very old and fading. (“The word of the voyage is subject to the wind.” — Edmond Jabès) It is not our custom to remonstrate with an honorable man going into that night which awaits us all. Even less so in Africa, where it is assumed that extreme old age brings wisdom and should be venerated. And yet — all along I respected you as a man of integrity and of courage; all along I felt I could disagree and say so, even when my insights were uninformed and my positions unwittingly partisan. Why would it be any different now? Am I to assume you have gone soft in the head? Should one, for the sake of worldwide euphoria, because we need to believe in human greatness, avoid sharing one’s confusion and disappointments with you?

Again, my respect and affection for you can only be expressed in telling what I see and understand of this country. You could be my father; you were always a mentor and a reference; you are also a comrade.

I am talking of where we are now, in 2008.

Recently, I had the occasion to spend some time in South Africa. I don’t get to go there very often anymore, and I realize the extent to which I’m no longer able to “read” the environment instinctively. I’ve lost touch, maybe because the surface is so often slick with blood. I also realize that, like so many others, I’ve become conditioned by expectations of the worst. The seemingly never-ending parade of corrupt clowns in power at all levels, their incompetence and indifference, indeed their arrogance as historic victors drunkenly driven by a culture of entitlement, the sense of impending horror in the air because of the violence and the cruelty with which crimes are committed, to be tortured and killed for a cell phone or a few coins — one becomes paranoid. I was getting more scared the longer we were in the country. I was beginning to calculate the statistical chances of being the next to be robbed, raped, or blown away.

The circle narrows. The grandmother of a close friend — she’s as old as you are — pleads with her robbers not to be sexually violated, she even claims to be infected with a communicable disease; the nephew of a fellow writer is shot in the face, killed in his own house by a night intruder whom he mistook for a rat; the son of my eldest brother is stabbed in a parking lot outside a restaurant, the blade pierces a lung, the police never turn up, he is saved because his companion calls her boyfriend all the way in Australia by cell phone and he could summon a nurse he happens to know in Johannesburg. (The woman is on a first visit to the country; she leaves the next day and swears never to return.)

Behind the everyday bloody shadow play there are tendencies that I’d like to talk to you about, for although it would perhaps be unconscionable to ascribe any part of responsibility to you for the ambient lawlessness, there are deeper problems related to power and to the value of human life that must have been evident all along. But as ever when one visits the country, what sears the mind and chokes the heart first are the apparently random events that have become emblematic of a society in profound disarray.

I come across a report on school violence, from Johannesburg, produced by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). Games such as “hit me, hit me” and “rape me, rape me,” in which schoolchildren chase each other and then pretend to hit or rape each other, are being played at South African schools, it says. The commission heard from Community Action towards a Safe Environment (case) that “this game demonstrates the extent and level to which brutalization of the youth has reached, and how endemic sexual violence has become in South Africa.” The report says school is the “single most common” site of crimes such as assault of students and the second most common for robbery against pupils. According to a study conducted by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP), young people were twice as likely to become victims of crime than adults. “Just over two fifths (41.4%) of the young people interviewed had been victims of some form of crime.” The CJCP found that toilets were an area of the school feared most by pupils. More than a fifth of sexual assaults of young people occurred while they were at school, and according to a study conducted by the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme (TVEP) among 1,227 female students who were victims of sexual violence, 8.6 percent were assaulted by teachers. The Western Cape Education Department established that “very often, disciplinary procedures are not followed through and educators resign upon being formally charged.” Another study found that “26 percent of students were of the opinion that forced sexual intercourse did not necessarily constitute rape.” The Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town told the commission the most common forms of violence it treated students for were assault with a fist, knife, or panga, rape and sexual assault, bite wounds, and firearm-related injuries.

I’m talking at such length about this because one of your foundations intends to help save the children, Madiba — and your love for the little ones is heralded. Indeed, doesn’t your benevolent smile, known by billboard all over the world, tell us to be compassionate to the children? How do we turn the culture of child abuse around?

Johannesburg, again:

The mother of a two-year-old boy, who was found in Kagiso on Friday with his genitals mutilated, has been located . . ..

“Police managed to find the boy’s mother, Meisi Majola, 26, who reported
her son missing from 14:00 yesterday [Thursday],” said Inspector Solomon Sibiya.

“She said her son had disappeared from their home in Roodeport on the West Rand.”

The little boy, dressed in a maroon track suit, a grey track suit top, and takkies [sport shoes], was walking around in tears in the Ebumnandini informal settlement in Kagiso, when he was picked up by two men.

They stopped their car and noticed that his takkies and pants were stained with blood. Sibiya said the child was taken to a police station where it was later discovered that he had been mutilated.

To be used as muti would have been the purpose, as you know: human ingredients for a potion against the despair of living. “Police could not find out where he lived as he was too traumatized to speak. Now that his mother has been found, we would be able to conduct a proper investigation,” Sibiya said.

Do you know what constitutes the nightmare fear of young, middle-class men in South Africa these days? To be arrested for speeding or being under the influence and thrown into a cell with hardened criminals — as often as not now infected with HIV — before being released a few days later. A young man goes out to celebrate one last time with his male friends before his wedding. On the way home he is caught for reckless driving. The police cells are dark. All night long he will be sodomized repeatedly. His screams of anguish and pain elicit no reaction from the police. The next morning, at first light, one of the perpetrators sidles up to him, strokes his forearm, and whispers, “After last night, you are truly one of us.”

Have we tried hard enough to give another meaning to “brotherhood”? How did we get to the point where the dead are mutilated, the right eye gouged out in morgues to be used in concoctions that will make the sight of the living more acute, and where corpses are unearthed so as to steal the coffins?

The saddest case may be that of the six young “Colored” farm children aged nine to fifteen, barefoot, thin like praying mantises, clutching one another as they appear in court for having stoned to death one of their playmates, a girl of eleven, ostensibly in a fight over a bottle of cheap sweet wine. Or, as another report had it, because they thought she had AIDS. When she no longer moved, they ran to fetch an adult. In court they would rub one dry and scabbed foot over the other, whisper, look around with big eyes. (“Give me your eyes. And the separate will be one.” — Edmond Jabès)

During my recent stay, I was invited to participate in the annual literary festival Time of the Writer, organized by the Centre for Creative Arts of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. It was good to be back in the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, which I remembered from the first events years ago, and it was a pleasure to congratulate Peter Rorvik, the director of the Centre, and his colleagues for what they had achieved so powerfully. In that bright and tumultuous early period of liberation, two friends from the long-ago past of struggle and exile came to personify Durban for me — Mazisi Kunene, the prophetic poet of Zulu epics now somewhere among the spirits, his teeth bared sardonically, and Lewis Nkosi, the sharp and fearless novelist, present on this night when I had to make the opening remarks. Both had tried to capture the complex realities of South Africa in words; both attempted to find the strong words that could hold new dreams of justice. Together we had emptied countless bottles in repeated brave but futile efforts to assuage the anguish.

I believe that a venue where readings and discussions take place regularly will become imbued with the patina, the sacred spirit, of creativeness. People come over the years to propose and to explore writing, and to debate the underlying assumptions. What brings them together is a shared passion for exploring the ways these concepts may affect the social environment in which we live. And what you have as a result is this space of many voices where, if you close your eyes, you may still hear the rustle of arguments and the shaping of imagination to clarify commitment.

Nietzsche wrote, “Only through forgetfulness can man ever achieve the illusion of possessing a ‘truth.’ . . . What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are.” Of course, the illusionary “truths” I proposed that night were not original; they were informed by insights of the ancestors and the experiences of contemporaries such as you, and maybe I twisted them to fit my anger and my pain. My own contribution, I said, when looking at what is happening around us, may be pessimistic, brutal, arbitrary, and generalizing. It was important at the outset, therefore, to put on record that there is also reason to celebrate. Only too often do I forget that the struggle for dignity is a complex and never-ending process. Even now, there are still diligent hands writing and beautiful voices speaking out for compassion and honesty and clarity: these, too, ought to be amplified and encouraged.

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, an Afrikaner poet, served seven years in South African prisons for his anti-apartheid activities. His most recent book is All One Horse (Archipelago).

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