Tag Archives: South Africa

Dancing with Speeches #21 Nelson Mandela

In 1994 Nelson Mandela stood in front of his nation in Cape Town and delivered his first speech as President of the Republic of South Africa. From this platform he looked over Table Bay and could see Robben Island where he had been imprisoned and he talked about democracy founded on the majority principle.

We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.

Rising up to rise others up along the way, to unify a nation divide, to set prisoners free, to invest in democracy as the primary tool of liberation from division and hatred is noble. It is a quest that starts with resistance, that experiences repression, violence, imprisonment, often creating with martyrs sacrificed along the way leads to building a movement that has a life of its own.  Finding a way home to justice and equity where those previously disenfranchised are restored, made whole and opportunities appear not as a privilege but a right, requires a collective consciousness but more importantly a collective compassion to transcend old wounds to bring spectacular healing powers to policy and programs, to hearts and minds.

As South Africa transitioned to democracy, unfurled a new flag they embedded an old song ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika‘ into the national anthem. It was composed in 1897 as a hymn with lyrics from the five most widely spoken of South Africa‘s eleven official languages – Xhosa (first stanza, first two lines), Zulu (first stanza, last two lines), Sesotho (second stanza), Afrikaans (third stanza), and English (final stanza).  The hymn, a promise, a prayer  is a call to action, a call to be blessed.  The blessing: to be saved from war and suffering, and to hear the crags echoing the landscape. Surely these are the blessings that come when we turn our attention to the highest forms of democracy? How do we hear from the crags, those rugged outcrops among the cliffs? The wail of the wind, the natural power of the flowers pushing through to bloom, the migratory birds nesting from predators, are these not the blessings from the refuges created by the crags?  Or are they places of exile, holding the freedom fighters till they can come down to the plain?  The land and the sea are both blessing and blessed.

Constructing an order where justice is the foundation was the challenge of South Africa and having their first democratic elections in 1994 to elect Mandela was hard fought and looking out over Robben Island on his inauguration day was great staging. There is always imprisonment before liberation, captives need to be set free.  Being locked up internally before the blessed release of forgiveness is true for us as individuals as it is for a nation.

As my country prepares for another national election, our own Robben Island where we detain those seeking freedom from persecution is invisible from our coastline. Manus and Nauru are a long way off our shores.  The freedom fighters of South Africa looked to their own people for a solution and found a political one through the African National Congress and a world wide wave of disapproval to apartheid that eventually brought democracy.  The clumsy efforts of our world to bring democracy to war torn lands creating a refugee movement unprecedented for more than two generations means people are finding their way to far flung places like Australia and yet we are not fully embracing that offering asylum could be part of our contribution to bring democracy too. Who knows ?  We may well be incubating a future Nelson Mandela for Syria, Sudan, Sri Lanka from in the safety of our land.

The journey to freedom Mandela took throughout his life, is not so different to those who seek asylum. Refugees are exiles and the anguish they have being estranged from their homeland, the fear of being returned, the lack of protection offered. He too was exiled, estranged and hidden from view. I will leave it to one of South Africa’s poet laureate’s to remind us to make a bonfire to the maps that no longer serve us and to give dignity to each person.  Without dignity the citizen experience cannot emerge and democracy is compromised.

If destroying all the maps known
would erase all the boundaries
from the face of this earth
I would say let us
make a bonfire
to reclaim and sing
the human person

Refugee is an ominous load
even for a child to carry
for some children
words like home
could not carry any possible meaning
but
displaced
border
refugee
must carry dimensions of brutality and terror
past the most hideous nightmare
anyone could experience or imagine

Empty their young eyes
deprived of a vision of any future
they should have been entitled to
since they did not choose to be born
where and when they were
Empty their young bellies
extended and rounded by malnutrition
and growling like the well-fed dogs of some
with pretensions to concerns about human rights
violations

Can you see them now
stumble from nowhere
to no
where
between
nothing
and
nothing

Consider
the premature daily death of their young dreams
what staggering memories frighten and abort
the hope that should have been
an indelible inscription in their young eyes

Perhaps
I should just borrow
the rememberer’s voice again
while I can and say:
to have a home is not a favour.

Heralds

The forecaster predicted rain and so it came to pass that the memorial service for Mandela drenched dignitaries and Soweto citizens alike. I watched from the comfort of my red couch. Boos for Zuma and a speech from Obama that will go down in history as one of the great speeches of the 21st Century.  Hildegard I listened to the words and songs and dabbed at my eyes along the way and prayed his death will herald a future of reconciliation and restorative justice in other parts of the world – Cuba, Palestine, Tibet came to mind. The US and Cuban leaders shook hands, Mandela’s words about Palestine filled twitter and the Dalai Lama was refused an entry visa to South Africa to appease China – so there is plenty for Mandela’s spirit to herald.

Reflecting on being a herald in this season of Advent, when there are so many heralds in the nativity story is capturing my imagination.  Those who brought the message of hope, the one who carried the child, the shepherds, the innkeeper, the astrologers, the animals too – all heralds to the news of child like no other come to greet us to in turn announce and proclaim a message of peace and justice.

The herald announces something is about to happen. The stars twinkle and turn each evening making their way through the night sky, like a town crier, each flicker a message, inviting me to join in the great cosmic event about to unfold when the day breaks.  Br David Steindl-Rast reminds us that each new day is a good day, an irreplaceable gift, one that arrives freshly delivered each and every morning.  I wake to the sounds of the birds who sing a chorus of welcome in my garden and urge me to join in the song.  As their song makes its way to my ear I wake up to the new day. A battalion of carollers arrive every morning to announce to me that the new day has arrived.

Not all heralds bring good news. My email in box delivered some news I didn’t want to read this week. News that I knew would come one day from a dear friend of an illness that has taken its next step in her body.  But in bringing that news to me I responded and was able to share an embrace in real time face to face. We were in the trenches together once and the spirit of the ANZACS somehow got us through. Her spirit is holding her too now as she lives in these precious moments of each new day.

When I look over my year I see heralds everywhere! Musicians, story-tellers, poets, dogs, children, flowers, trees – all of creation – animate and inanimate – announcing and denouncing – laying out a path before me and inviting me to go deeper.  There is no doubt that David Whyte’s work has been one a very significant herald trumpeting a way to look at the world through the lens of a poet.  This has heralded for me a new way of seeing the world. He writes:

The poet lives and writes at the frontier between deep internal experience and the revelations of the outer world. There is no going back for the poet once this frontier has been reached; a new territory is visible and what has been said cannot be unsaid. The discipline of poetry is in overhearing yourself say difficult truths from which it is impossible to retreat. Poetry is a break for freedom. In a sense all poems are good; all poems are an emblem of courage and the attempt to say the unsayable; but only a few are able to speak to something universal yet personal and distinct at the same time; to create a door through which others can walk into what previously seemed unobtainable realms, in the passage of a few short lines.

Hildegard the Herald – you too have opened up a way for me to share thoughts and stories this yearl and as the year comes to a close I am grateful that a path was made by writing each week. A path that has lead me to new friends, new ideas, new challenges.  A path that has encouraged me to reflect and review my life in a way I had not done before.  A path that is now clearer for me to do more writing, more reflecting, more poetry … and who knows where that path is leading me … the door is open and I will keep walking through it each and every day because I aspire to be like Mandela and each day listen to W.E. Henley who wrote Invictus, herald the message: I am the captain of my soul.

NT Sunrise

NT Sunrise

Amandla! Mandela

Dear Hildegard, I want to share some memories with you about South Africa and Mandela. Hearing the news today of his death has reminded me of so many things ….

I remember coming into Cape Town and being so sea sick that I couldn’t get off the ship. I was 11.  I could see Table Mountain and I knew it was Africa and in another ten days or so we would be home in Australia.

I remember the day the Springboks played in Adelaide – it was my first year in High School and the match had to be abandoned.  Those protesters heralded the beginning of the sporting boycott of South Africa. Proud I lived in a city that began that act of solidarity.

I remember going to dinners, marches, putting up posters, organising prayer services, talking to friends, selling raffle tickets, singing songs of freedom, learning all the words of God Bless Africa to support the end of apartheid.

I remember meeting Leah Tutu in Adelaide and asking her how does she keep going when her husband was constantly facing death threats and always so close to trouble and tragedy. She told me – I dance, we dance.

I remember staying up all night to see Mandela released from prison and having the ABC satellite loose transmission just a few moments before it happened because Mandela’s release was delayed.

I remember taking the family to the city for a peace march to celebrate Mandela’s release. I did not want our children to miss the moment. I wanted to be a part of history.

I remember crying and dancing the day Mandela became President and hearing him say Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. (Marianne Williamson).  I remember this being printed off in my office and carrying it around with me for years as a constant reminder to be courageous and in the light.

I remember being in Perth Airport and seeing a very tired and, I thought, inebriated, Kerry O’Brien heading off to South Africa to interview Mandela. I was on my way to Mozambique and would be passing through Johannesburg.

I remember being in Johannesburg and going to Alexandra and being shocked by the poverty on one side of the road and the wealth on the other. I remember the energy of the student and church activists who kept me company that day.

I remember searching for the new South African flag in the market in J’burg so I could bring it home to keep reminding me how a new nation was finally re-born and a flag no longer outlawed.

I remember driving Donald Woods to an event at Annesley College and the hall was packed to the rafters and he mainly wanted to talk to me about Australian cricket. The irony of the ordinary passions amidst the politics of sheer survival caused me to chuckle!

I remember feeling proud of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons, with former PM Malcolm Fraser making real and important contributions to bring about peace and to stand with the people of South Africa. I always felt this was one of the finest acts of the Commonwealth. It also rehabilitated Fraser for me as I had lost all respect for him back in 1975!

I remember being inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and seeing Tutu cry night after night in hearing the evidence. I was so inspired by this magnificent restorative justice experience.

I remember singing all the songs on Freedom is Coming over and over again until everyone in the house knew every word.

I remember getting a beautiful copy from the dearest of friends of Long Walk to Freedom – a coffee table version – chosen so all the photos could be seen and shared easily with the children.

I remember being in Glasgow and a South African delegation thanking me as an Australian for standing shoulder to shoulder with black South Africa to help end apartheid. I felt a fraud for the little I had done and humbled to receive their thanks – two of them had been imprisoned for their politics.  I remember seeing in the Glasgow Town Hall a thank you note from Mandela to the people of Scotland that same trip and it bore the date of my birthday.

I remember going to Mandela’s house 8115 Vilakazi Street, Orlando, Soweto the womb in which many of his earliest thoughts and plans were made.  The only street in the world where two Nobel Prize winners have lived.

I remember going to the Hektor Pietersen Museum and being so inspired by the youthfulness of protest and the courage of school students.

I remember being in the Apartheid Museum and learning for the first time that I had seen more footage on my television on what had been going on in South Africa, than many of the South Africans themselves because of the censorship.  I remember the tablecloth on which the ideas and constitutional changes were etched.

I remember being on the Parliament House balustrade in Pretoria and buying stamps that commemorated Mandela’s Presidency and a few year’s later being in Cape Town and walking through the doors of the National Parliament and seeing the fruits of democracy on the walls and in the conversations.

I remember walking the labyrinth in Cape Town behind Tutu’s St Georges Cathedral and marking each step for the long walk South Africa had behind it as well as the one in front of it.

I remember listening to the former political prisoner at Robben Island tell the story of what it was like to be there and the University they created to support and keep learning together. Mandela taught his fellow prisoners.

I remember the District 6 Museum and being delighted with the storyteller and the generosity of the tales of hope and resilience as well as nonviolent resistance in the harshest and dehumanising of circumstances.

I remember sitting next to one of the great elders of the trade union movement at dinner and being so honoured to be in his company while presenting at a conference on democracy for Gaetung Province. How amazing it was to have this opportunity and he thanked me for all Australia had done to help end.

I remember in 2012 being sad to say goodbye once again to South Africa and wondering when I might be back. I am very grateful that one of my now adult children had a taste by coming with me on that trip. He was 5 at the rally when Mandela had been released.

I remember listening to Johnny Clegg at WOMADelaide and enjoying every single minute of his talk and his band. It was my WOMADelaide highlight that year.

I remember all the South Africans I have met in South Africa and around the world. I remember their kindness and patience with me. Their love of their country and that they will be mourning for Mandiba in their own ways and for their own reasons.

These and many more memories of my little thread of connection to the story of Mandela and his beautiful country have been flooding back.  I wept when I heard the news. I gave thanks for his life. I pray for the future of South Africa. I have always felt that while there was breath in his body, it was an insurance for the whole country to protect and to guide.  I pray that his spirit will inspire a new generation of activists who will understand that there can never be peace without justice.

I am ashamed that I came to learn more about racism from South Africa first before I came to know it closer to home in my own country and community. But I am grateful I was able to apply some of those lessons. The lesson of solidarity is what I learnt most from being a tiny part of the anti-apartheid movement.

It was the words of Bonhoeffer that added to my understanding of solidarity:

“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the socialists and the trade unionists, and I was neither so I did not speak out.  Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”

And so this day I am in solidarity with all those who mourn Mandela’s death and celebrate his life.  I will do a dance to the Soweto Gospel choir, sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, ‎ unhaul the flag, look over my photos and books, send messages to friends in South Africa and say a prayer for his family and his country, and raise my hand with a fist – Amandla!

Sunset in Pilansberg

Sunset in Pilansberg