Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Forgiveness: According to Nelson Mandela

I put Nelson Mandela up there amongst the gods, as a contemporary of Prometheus. “Civilization begins with a rebellion. Prometheus, one of the Titans, steals fire from the gods on mount Olympus and brings it as a gift to man, marking the birth of human culture. For this rebellion Zeus sentences him to be chained to Mount Caucasus where vultures consume his liver during the day and at night it grows back only to be again eaten away the next day. This is a tale of the agony of the creative individual, whose nightly rests only resuscitates him so that he can endure his agonies the next day. But note also that Prometheus is released from his sufferings only when an immortal renounces his immortality in Prometheus favor. This Chiron does. What a vivid affirmation of human life, one of the essential characteristics of which is that each one of us will some day die! It is saying: I willingly give up immortality to affirm humanity; I am willing to die in order to affirm human civilization.” Rollo May, Power and Innocence.

Mandela did steal ‘fire’ from the gods and gave it to the humans of the 20th century and as such he increased our level of consciousness in our dealings with one another regardless of the color of our skins and I know that race relations in the world since then has improved.

The history of South Africa has fascinated me since I was in secondary school and in the late 1970s there was a massive influx of black South African students into our schools, this was Nigeria’s way of helping the disenfranchised South African blacks. The five students that ended up in my school had left home, family and friends behind. At the time, I was still struggling with the feelings of abandonment from my parents who I felt had banished me to boarding school at the age of 12, but I still saw them about once a month, on vacations and holidays, I wondered how these students fared without seeing their parents for years and some of them swore never to return to apartheid South Africa.

But what baffled me the most about the whole situation and still continues to baffle me till today is the fact that these black South Africans were not citizens of their own country under the apartheid laws! So what’s their citizenship? They were in limbo, belonging to no land.

But they must belong somewhere, they are in this world on some land and yet they have no citizenship! What is citizenship? Does that mean they couldn’t get passports? No, they couldn’t and the girls who ended up in my school at the time came as citizens of the free and landlocked Lesotho and, Swaziland.

It reminds me of a stupid law that existed in Nigeria (and as since been scrapped) and which gave the police the power to arrest you if they didn’t like the looks of you, and that law was about ‘Wandering.’ So if you were taking a walk on Broad Street in Lagos, a policeman could just come up to you and arrest you and lock you up, “and what is my offense?” you ask. Answer: “You were arrested for wandering.”

This law will better be understood if taken in historical context, and that is back in the colonial days, the colonials and expatriates commandeered and lived in the choicest parts of the country, like on lakeshores, by the oceans, on the hills and other scenic parts, and if you a native was found walking around any of these places, it means that you were going there for one thing and one thing only, to upset these white people with the sight of your black skin, even though this is black Africa we are talking about.

This takes my mind to the famous saying attributed to Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya in the 1950: “When the missionaries arrived, Africans had the land and the missionaries the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible. Africans were told the Bible would deliver them into heaven. But they were not ‘saved’ from slavery. Since the bible spoke of slavery without condemning it, Christian missionaries argued sternly that Africans would in fact be better off as slaves than as African savages.”

And to this day, I cannot bring myself to watch movies like ‘Out of Africa,’ or ‘A Good Man in Africa,’ where the ‘white’ man is like the Holy Ghost descending to save Africans from themselves, and not to speak of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’

So, since my teens, I have followed the events in South Africa closely and like most people in the world rejoiced when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and what a celebration we had in Nigeria at the time! Over ten of our most popular musicians released albums to mark the occasion and there were celebrations on our streets and individuals threw parties in their homes. We even had our famous ‘Aso Ebi,’ wax cotton fabrics with the faces of both Nelson and Winnie on them and I bought 2 yards of the fabric to make a dress for my toddler daughter at the time. Every African grew a foot taller in that year.

If Nelson Mandela never did anything more in his life after his prison term and securing freedom from apartheid for South Africans, if he had said, ‘I have been away from my family for over thirty years, I just want to spend the rest of my life in retirement and reacquaint myself with them, he would have done exceedingly well, but he didn’t rest on his oars and like he said in the concluding part of his prison memoirs Long Walk to Freedom: “When I walked out of prison that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made many missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

And so he worked harder with other political groups and parties and was elected the first black president of South Africa.

But like he said, it was only a moment taken to rest, and then he shocked the whole world by setting up The Truth and Reconciliation Committee as a step in the healing of the country. And what this was about is that anyone who had abused, or oppressed or brutalized another person under the apartheid law could come up, confess to this and be given absolution. Why did he do this? He didn’t want his country to dissolve into a civil war as was speculated by the whole world where the now free and majority blacks after years of oppression and suppression and being herded as cattle in the shanty towns, beaten, imprisoned and killed under the apartheid laws not to speak of other daily injustices and humiliation would rise up and avenge all of these wrong doings on the minority Afrikaners.

I read reactions to this from a lot of writers and I struggled with them as they tried to come to terms with this. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, in The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness: “The logic of “Truth and Reconciliation,” however, demands that the mind prepares itself for the spectacle of a “penitent” Pol Pot, freed, morally cleansed, at liberty to go about his business in a humanely restored milieu!”

“This risk free parade of villains, calmly—and occasionally with ill-concealed relish—recounting their roles in kidnappings, tortures, murders, and mutilation, at the end of which absolution is granted without penalty or forfeit, is either a lesson in human ennoblement, or a glorification of impunity.”

And, “Memory obviously rejects amnesia, but it remains amenable to closure that is, apparently, the ultimate goal of social strategies such as Truth and Reconciliation, and the Reparation Movement (for the enslavement of a continent). It is there that they find common ground even though the latter does entail, by contrast, a demand for restitution. Both seek the cathartic bliss, the healing that comes with closure.”

And one of his conclusions was, “The crimes that the African continent commits against her kind are of a dimension and, unfortunately, of a nature that appears to constantly provoke memories of the historic wrongs inflicted on that continent by others. There are moments when it almost appears as if there is a diabolic continuity (and inevitability?) to it all—that the conduct of latter-day (internal) slave runners is merely the stubborn precipitate of a yet unexpiated (my emphasis) past. The ancient slave stockades do not seem ever to have vanished; they appear more to have expanded, occupying indiscriminate spaces that often appear contingent with the national boundaries.” I wonder if this is what Nelson Mandela was trying to prevent in his country.

A lot of trauma was and still continues to be visited on the African continent and even kind-hearted and well-meaning people of the world still use Africa as their spitting pot, and I wonder if had every country in Africa on attaining their independence had set up a Truth and Reconciliation Committee, we would not we have continue to visit even worse atrocities on ourselves.

Has the Truth and Reconciliation committee in South Africa given both the blacks and the Afrikaans a means of catharsis and has prevented to a large extent internalization and identification with the oppressor? Has it helped in preventing South Africans blacks from identifying at the pole of victims and the Afrikaans identifying at the pole of the perpetrators?

Mandela did not underplay the effect of apartheid on his people; he gave it its due place in South African history: “The policy of apartheid created a deep and lasting wound in my country and my people. All of us will spend many years, if not generations, recovering from that profound hurt. But the decades of oppression and brutality had another, unintended effect, and that was that it produced the Oliver Thambos, the Walter Sisulus, the Chief Luthulis, the Yusuf Dadoos, the Bram Fischers, the Robert Sobukwes, of our time—men of such extraordinary courage, wisdom, and generosity that their like may never be known again. Perhaps it requires such depth of oppression to create such heights of character. My country is rich in the minerals and gems that lie beneath the soil, but I have always known that its greatest wealth is its people, finer and truer than the purest diamond.

It is from these comrades in the struggle that I learned the meaning of courage. Time and again, I have seen men and women risk and give their lives for an idea. I have seen men stand up to attacks and torture without breaking, showing a strength and resiliency that defies imagination. I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” As someone of African origin reading this, I want to be like the Thambos and the Sisulus, and I just don’t want to be an ordinary African woman anymore, I want to expand and widen my frame of identification.

Mandela began to show us his thought process leading up to the Reconciliation committee even while in prison: “I never lost hope that this great transformation would occur. Not only because of the great heroes that I have already cited but because of the courage of the ordinary men and women of my country. I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or of his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than it’s opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrade and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”

And he goes to say: “It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”

On my part, I have come to realize that Forgiveness is a very active process indeed and one that you have to work really, really hard to get to, it is not for the faint at heart and it does not include Forgetting, and as a matter of fact, we must not forget at all.

But it was while watching the movie ‘Invictus’ produced by Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman that I came to fully understand and appreciate Mandela’s thought process. And in different parts of the movie as he gradually preached his message of forgiveness and not only did he defuse a potentially violent situation, he joined the whole country together and had them sublimate their intent not to forgive (and black aspiration), and whites fear of retaliation into Rugby, projecting their anger onto the opposing teams that they played.

Rollo May said “The joy of the discovery of one’s own thoughts is a truth that we rarely hear from anyone who hasn’t hammered it out on the anvil of years of solitude.” And Mandela had almost thirty years to hammer this out and the whole world is richer for it.

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