Article — From the December 2008 issue

Mandela’s Smile

Notes on South Africa

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Madiba, you will be remembered for being naturally curious and compassionate about the lives of the people you came in contact with and for the way you put everybody at ease. I know you would have listened to my story, however personal. Don’t even the most generic and sweeping statements have their origin in private events?

We, my wife and I, had been in the country for little over a month then, and it was an unsettling experience. We’d spent much of the preceding few weeks clearing out the house in the Little Karoo where we used to live for shorter and longer periods over the years. It was heartbreaking, in that leaving is the confirmation of a failed experience and a broken dream — the “dream” was probably my own naive expectation that a new dispensation ushered in by a liberation movement would realize at least some of the objectives we fought for: economic justice, an ethical public life . . . And for me it was the end to the possibility of belonging — writing and painting in a studio overlooking a riverbed where wind scythed and swayed the reeds, where yellow and red birds flitted, where giant mountain tortoises would come to scrape their shells against the white wall around the house, and from the mountain slope on the opposite bank baboons and shy-hoofed buck and rock rabbits would come down in the gray light of dawn. Ah, for the naturalness of growing as old as you under that sun, bone-white like a bleached thorn in summer, glinting like snow on the inland mountain peaks in winter! In the cemetery there were swellings of earth covering the bones of people with familiar names.

Clearing house was disturbing because I had to sort through files and manuscripts and throw so much away — and I came across, in notes and letters and snippets of essays, the recurring references to barbaric criminality, the plague of raping, theft, and fraud, the indecent enrichment of the few, manipulation, redeployment as a form of impunity, public office as an exercise in scavenging, the breakdown of essential services, entrenched and continuing racism, the lack of public morals or even common sense.

Why did I not see the picture more clearly? Had I become inured to the social and economic realities of the country? Could I not read the pattern? Was my understanding obscured by the dream, the desire for freedom?

I must tell you this terrible thing, my old and revered leader: if a young South African were to ask me whether he or she should stay or leave, my bitter advice would be to go. For the foreseeable future now, if you want to live your life to the full and with some satisfaction and usefulness, and if you can stand the loss, if you can amputate yourself — then go . . .

Should we not be engaged in trying to see the world at large and Africa in particular as clearly as possible? We know that “seeing” is also an act of imagination and, particularly, that in the present void with its absence of horizons of expectation, we need to explore and promote a collective moral space and the fearlessness of creative thinking shot through with the doubt brought by uncertainty, in order to be of use to the younger generations. By imagination do we become part of the surroundings.

This is our world. We know no more than people before us did. You who come from what seems an unbroken line of ancestors linked by praise songs — do you agree? What will be the last songs you hear? The chanting of warriors as they breast the final hill? Every generation lives in the fullness of its own comprehension, the completeness of its own smiles. And our minds are as ever bordered by darkness, except that we now live in an infinitely more dangerous place. But by the same token, I think you have taught us, we cannot indulge ourselves — for reasons of political correctness or tribal guilt or cynicism or common greed — in the rainbow intoxication of knowing and understanding less than those before us did.

What is our horizon? Globally, that, behind the burning fields as smokescreen of worldwide insecurity, we encounter poverty — endemic and brutalizing and deepening — and the greed of the insatiable predators: the arms manufacturers and the oil guzzlers and the smugglers of people. That, at the core of our barbaric new age, however much dolled up by the gadgets of modernity, we find fundamentalists exterminating thousands of innocent people as “collateral damage” from despair for what they believe to be the cause of their cruel and jealous god. That, in demagogic chambers of states claiming to be liberated and democratic, the cynical rule unrestrained in their lust for power and profit. That, in the whitewashed institutions of our so-called enlightened societies, we see the same institutionalized discrimination against women. And, Madiba — yes — that, at the heart of this deep forest of cruelty, we still lack compassion for the children.

What we experience in Africa may not be worse than in other parts of the world. Maybe our problems are just more acute and intractable. A new American president may well close down the penal colony of Guantánamo and start recognizing and making up for the war crimes committed in Iraq and in Afghanistan, even if only to secure U.S. access to oil; the rulers of China may one day be obliged to start looking after the interests of their peasants and workers and to stop polluting and cheapening the world; even Israel may conceivably be prevailed upon to desist from exterminating Palestine as an entity and start giving back what they have stolen.

Maybe our problems have deeper and more obdurate causes. Who in Africa is going to put an end to the impunity of the criminals ruling over us? Who is going to resolve the genocide in Darfur and the mass raping of women in Congo? Who in Africa is going to face the consequences of something like 120,000 child soldiers? How are we going to come to terms with the fact that our nation-states are a fiction for the benefit of our dictators and their ruling clans? Who is going to get back the money our politicians stole from the people? Who is going to take responsibility for condoning the rule and extending the protection of international legitimacy to a maniac like Robert Mugabe? And how are we going to stop this seemingly irrevocable “progress” of South Africa to a totalitarian party-state?

Should Omar Hassan al-Bashir be indicted for attempted genocide in Darfur by the International Criminal Court? Yes! Should Robert Mugabe and his blood- besmirched, murdering acolytes be indicted for crimes against their own population? Yes! Should Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rice and Wolfowitz likewise be brought before a world court and charged with international war crimes? Of course! Bush must be entitled to as fair a trial as Saddam Hussein had. (The only difference between the two of them is that the effete American has the personal courage and honor of a barroom peacock.)

More important now for us, old master: Did you, did we, ever seriously intend to bring about a democratic dispensation in South Africa, with its checks and balances and accountability? Or was it about settling old colonial scores? For how long can we continue on the schizophrenic knife edge between the discourse of equality and justice and the practice of plundering and arbitrary power? For how much longer can this double-talk be sustained, to the population and to the outside world? How come the individual human life has no value? Is this traditional? Do you know that “national liberation” is destroying, by debasement and abuse (as it did in Algeria, Angola, Guinea-Bissau . . .), our dream for an African modernity nourished from African roots and realities? Why do we call “national democratic revolution” the process by which the state and all its institutions — and, by extension, its culture and economy — become the feeding trough for the party and its cadres? Was it ever conceivable that a national liberation government could cede power if outvoted? For how much longer are we going to play the role of “victims of history”? For how much longer are we going to demean ourselves by living on handouts from the rest of the world? How do we deal with the humiliation and the shame? For how much longer are we going to allow for all our policies and decisions to be dictated by the paralyzing pain of centuries?

You know all of this, even though you will talk of a million points of light to obliterate the darkness I’m speaking of. How dare I even suggest you are not aware of what and how we are? Will you not point to the example of one life, lived with full consciousness and responsibility and honor, as an irrefutable answer? Yes, but how can people change the profound cultural apathy?

“This is our world. Fiction/Imagination is an unveiling of what we didn’t know we knew.” I was quoting this, that night in Durban, from a literary accomplice in another life and world, because I wanted to draw the furrow between the open source (some would say a sewer) of our imagination and the land of reality we try to work. In so doing, I said, we write into and from the pre-existent underground of images, memories, thoughts, etc. — “uncovering” what that companion called “the shared Atlantis of the imagination.

I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us. I have no idea how the experiences you went through changed your intimate landscapes. Maybe you only thought of yourself as the instrument of a particular historical moment? What do you hear when all is quiet — the dancing feet of your warrior tribesmen on the green hills of Qunu so disfigured by soil erosion? The acclamation of the world?

Perhaps we know no more than those who preceded us, but it is just as true that we have to transcend our limitations, that we must cling to the notion of a utopia (call it “clean and accountable government” or “common sense”) as justification and motivation to keep on moving and making a noise. For the mind has to be allowed to dance, even with death, if we want to stay it reverting to despair and narcissistic self-love. To survive, we must assume the responsibility of imagining the world differently.

Imagination gives access to “meaning,” I argued that night in the theater. Storytelling is a system of knowledge; a swarm of words on the page aggregate “authority”; the very act of narration carries a presumption of truth. And I’m only too aware of the fact that I position myself to you as a writer trying to imagine you, or at least the meaning of your smile. Is imagination not the first expression of identification and therefore of generosity? Writing as the production of textured consciousness is the mediating metaphor between fact and fiction. It is in the movement of the heart-mind and the thinking awareness of physical and/or cultural displacement that creativity is born — as sequences of perception bringing about new combinations of past and present, projecting future shapes and thus helping to shape the future. We are hardwired to see intention in the world, and thus predisposed to the art of learning by intervention. We become by making. We realize ourselves through acts of transformation. And these journeys bring with them implications of accountability. By imitating the forms of creativity we apprehend the contents of meaning; in the enactment of ethics we learn about the prescription and the limitations of the will to have being emerge: together these constitute the freedom way.

It’s a long walk to freedom. (And, to quote Edmond Jabès again: “Distance is light, as long as you keep in mind that there are no limits. We are distance.”) I tried to empty myself before the mirror. I know I’m getting to resemble my father more every day. When I look at you I’m reminded of the unbridgeable distance between my father and me, but also how I can now begin to experience him from within. And in that way I’m getting closer to you. Age may bring closure, an unclothed closeness, but also a blind raging against darkness. You will almost certainly not read this “letter”; others will hold me accountable for having dared to draw you in my writing.

But I’d like to think (imagine!) you’d agree when I say we must go on, we need to leave the reassuring and self-caressing domain of the “possible” to extend the reach of the impossible/unthinkable (such as respect for the sacredness of the individual human life in a country like South Africa, whatever the pains of the past and even despite the brutalization of injustice and of poverty). And these ethics, this neutrality, demand that one allows emptiness for a certain moral imagination to come about — that is, spaces for the promotion of doubt and for the unexpected, even and perhaps especially for what we as writers did not expect to find but always with compassion for the weakness and the human dignity of the other.

In an interview the novelist and scholar Njabulo Ndebele gave to City Press, he says, “The South African of the future will live comfortably with uncertainty because uncertainty promises opportunity, but you have to be robust about it, you have to be thoughtful about it, you have to contemplate it to get the full richness of it, and I think that is the challenge of being South African: to run away from unidimensional and definitive characterisations of ourselves . . .. The capacity of the country to imagine the future depends on nurturing imaginative thinking from the beginning of a child’s life right up to the end of life. We’ve somehow given all that up along the way. . . . We need to develop the ability to embrace uncertainty from a position of intelligence and imagination. The more of us who admit to our vulnerabilities, the more trusting the public space.”

When some years ago a few writers visited Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who died this past August, in the besieged ghetto of the West Bank, he spoke to us of the role of poetry. He ended by saying: “It is true that all poetry stripped of another life in another time is threatened by a quick dissolution in the present. True that poetry carries its own future and is always being reborn. . . .  But it is as true that no poet can put off for later, in some other place, the here and the now. In our time of storms it is a matter of the existence, the vital energy of poetry . . .. To give life to words, to give them back the water of life, can only be by way of bringing back the sense of living. And all search for sense is a search for the essence which confounds itself with our questioning of the intimate and the universal, that interrogation which makes poetry possible and indispensable, that questioning which has as consequence that the search for
sense is also a search for freedom.”

Dear Madiba, I’m aware of how unfair it is to lay all of the above at your feet, like some birthday bouquet of thorns. You deserve to have your knees warmed by a young virgin, like old King David in the Bible — not pummeled by the likes of me. Already that opening night in the theater in Durban, I tried to assume my pessimistic approach by saying that I’d come neither to praise Caesar nor to bury him but to ask what he has done with the trust of the people! By “Caesar” I meant the African National Congress or “liberation,” not you. Can the two be separated? Is it ever thinkable that you would denounce the ANC? Would you consider the thought that your organization has lost the way — or did we try to look away from its innate Stalinism and greed because of the heady struggle for release? It is a harsh question; it may even suggest that we have only the ashes of spent dreams to poke around in.

But of course I believe that with accountable leadership and the full and recognized participation of what used to be known as the “live forces” among the population, this continent can be turned around, and with it South Africa. Our dreams can be realized — and when I say this I very much have in mind the examples of Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe.

I dream as I want to believe you have dreamed, and I will continue to strive, for an integrated continent of generosity, economic justice, creativity, civil and civic responsibility. A continent that will develop its own sustainable modernity far away from Western “universalist” models of globalization serving only the masters. A continent that knows its primary wealth is its diversity of cultures. A continent whose citizens will stop blackmailing and whitemailing one another and the world with politically correct subservience and the “blame-us-on-history” syndrome. A continent that will understand the sense and the importance of the public good. A continent that will stop begging and stealing, and where the totalitarian conflation of nation and state and party in power will be abolished, where dictators will stop killing their people and where prancing will be confined to the catwalks of fashion shows. A continent where the ancestors are alive, certainly, to dance with — the way you used to dance on the stage, even in your old age, hoping to catch the fancy of the ladies! A continent that will never again accept second-class citizenship and will be neither the playground for Western phobia or self-interested charity nor the dumping ground for Chinese junk. A continent that will respect and celebrate life — the life of the planet. A continent that will plant crops and feed itself. A continent that will eradicate small arms and have no purpose for acquiring submarines and where the criminal and corrupting sleaze brought about by fabricating or buying arms will be stopped. A continent that will be the guardian of the past, all the pasts, and the custodian of our future — and where we will know that the future lies with the women. A continent of profound métissage and thus of reciprocal enrichment. A continent where no racism will be tolerated — and by that I also mean the racism and the humiliation of poverty.

Perhaps I will then, too, accede to a wider wisdom — of the kind that I sometimes heard or surmised in your words. I remember seeing a distant echo reproduced on a large photo of a scene in Africa, in the bar of the Hôtel Nord-Pinus in Arles, where I went recently to meet up with Mahmoud Darwish again. Outside the streets were blindingly white with sheets of heat, nearly as if under an African sun, but inside the bar it was cool and dark. The writing on the photo, giving it the veracity of nervous movement, was by the hand of Karen Blixen and came from her book Out of Africa. She talked of the natural fearlessness and grace of her guides: “this assurance, this art of swimming, they had, I thought, because they had preserved a knowledge that was lost to us by our first parents; Africa, amongst the continents will teach it to you: that God and the Devil are one.”

I know there’s no need to justify my lèse-majesté. However much you may disagree with my analyses, you would have heard me out. Besides, I believe we writers, word-makers rooted in civil society, need not be the clowns and the fools of those in power — not even the “whites” among us who suffer from being excluded from the “black” world. In fact, I believe we should think of freedom of the mind as a conscious and constant attempt to unthink order and authority. To think against hegemony of any variety, including the liberationist and the nativist and the iconic — particularly the insidious, moralistic mawkishness of political correctness expressed as a sightless idolization of our “leaders.” To think against the dictates, the values, and the property of consumerist societies. To think against the laziness of narcissism.

We need to remember that we are bastards and forget that we’re obedient citizens. Indeed, that our absolute loyalty lies in the disobedience to power and in our identification with the poor.

With abiding respect, and because I believe that smile was also sometimes a mocking one,

Your mongrel son,


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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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