Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Muse of Mandela

If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.
—Nelson Mandela
The Muse of Mandela

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death at the age of 95 I find myself musing about how much his life story has meant to the whole world and to me—living so far away from his South Africa, on the left coast of the USA. I am a member of the generation that came of age in the 1960s. Like many my mind was blown, my life was changed by that great crack in the zeitgeist through which flowed the civil rights movement,  the anti-war movement, women’s liberation, environmentalism and psychedelic drugs.

 We saw ourselves as part of a great awakening. We understood that “War is not Healthy for Children or Other Living Beings,” “Black is Powerful,” “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” and “Earth Is Our Mother.” We had seen molecules dance in the branches of a tree; we knew magic was afoot. 

We were young, idealistic and naïve. We thought we were crossing over Jordan on our way to the Promised Land. What happened? That sense of loss and confusion is a theme in my book, The Faust Woman Poems.

Here’s a poem:

Crossing Over

We thought we knew where
we were going the songs spelt
it out drinking gourd, no moon
night. Didn’t we sneak
past that overseer’s dogs, find
the silent boatman, listen to
the soft splash of oars on the way
to the other side ?

did we think we were headed
on board that train?
We sang the songs, imagined
country lives, city lives, switched
partners, took another toke
                                     of Acapulco Gold…

Long gone what you promised me
under the fig tree. And that key

                                          did I lose it? 

The key got lost, our faith got smashed, by terrible events—the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy. Many of us bent our heads down and pursued the hard, important work of our ordinary lives. Reagan was elected. We lost our larger vision, our hopes for a future without war, poverty, racism, sexism or environmental degradation. What would our world be like if Martin Luther King had lived to be a wise old man with a sharp and witty tongue?

It did make me proud to see students at Berkeley, my alma mater, protesting South Africa’s apartheid policies, demanding that the university divest itself of investments in that police state.

But I was blind sided by the light, totally surprised, when in 1990 I saw Nelson Mandela on television, walking out of prison—a free man. I felt dazed with joy and relief when, in 1994, Mandela and the Afrikaans president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, were able to negotiate a constitution which gave equal rights, and voting rights, to all people. My ticket to hope was given back to me when Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president.

Like most people in the world I fell under the spell of that great lion of Africa, Mandela—his clarity of purpose, his goodness, his integrity, his humility, his capacity for forgiveness. Though he clearly knew how to work with power, his motivation seemed to come from love. Under the influence of Mandela’s shining face I got back on that train to the Promised Land.

When my Jungian colleagues decided to hold our 2007 International meeting in Cape Town I was delighted. Though my husband Dan had lived in Kenya, doing training for Peace Corps, in the ‘70s, I had never been to Africa; She was calling me. Later we returned to South Africa, this time to Johannesburg, where I was invited to teach a group of Jungian oriented psychotherapists. These were powerful experiences for me in which my positive projections on South Africa got tested. The train to the Promised Land travelled through dangerous territory. I wrote about this in an essay published in Psychological Perspectives in 2011. Here are some excerpts:
On the first day we arrived in Africa in a jet lagged haze, we were told we had to go to the mountain. This was Table Mountain, an imposing flat topped stony god that presides over Cape Town. It was a clear bright day. There was no “table cloth,” no cluster of clouds hanging over the mountain, obscuring the view. This we were told, was most unusual, coming after days of rain—an opportunity we had to seize. So it is we found ourselves on top of the world, glorying in views of the wild coast, Devil ‘s Peak, the 12 Apostles. We meandered in a strange marsh land filled with wildflowers. A bright green–necked orange–breasted bird flew by. I had not understood how much of the magnetic pull of Africa comes from the landscape. In Cape Town, everywhere you go the mountain dominates—pulls your eyes, your mind, from the business of the street to the high slow language of rocks and earth. 
It was August, 2007. We were living in the shadow of the Bush years—had no idea as yet we were soon to have an African American president. We felt ashamed of our own country. At the opening reception to the conference I met Mamphele Ramphele—a tall elegant woman in black, something lacy at her throat. She embodies South African history. In her youth, she and her lover, Stephen Biko, were among the founders of the Black Consciousness movement of the 70s. I had read about them, read the poetry of that time. In the new South Africa she was the Vice Chancellor of the University of Capetown, and the Managing Director of the World Bank.… 
On the next day Ramphele was our plenary speaker. She wore a bright red dress and shawl and shone throughout the hall. She was bold and her manner was fierce, her vision wide and political. She spoke of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had been established by the post Apartheid government to facilitate recovery of the truth of what had happened. Hearings were held in public. She described it as a ritual of healing that helped the country find meaning. She spoke of its limitations, its failures. She spoke of the social engineering of apartheid, which destroyed families by separating working men, forcing them to live in barracks away from wives and children. Apartheid also blocked the education of young blacks, and the country was still suffering the consequences of a lost generation.  
I felt touched by a world of experience I couldn’t articulate—but which moved me deeply….We had wanted to believe that a new paradigm of justice and humanity was born out of Africa, and would lead us into the promised land. We wanted to believe that Mandela was Moses. It’s true he had walked out of prison because of the wisdom and courage of then South African president F.W. de Klerk. He had been elected president, there had not been bloodshed, but, as Mamphele told us, the terrible problems of economic inequality had not been solved. Whites still lived in privilege while many Black Africans were stuck in unbearable poverty. Whites were complaining that their children could not get work. Their talents were getting lost because they were emigrating.  
Next morning we rose early to go to Robben Island where Mandela had been in prison for 27 years. It was a choppy ride over—the Sea Princess slapping the waves—passengers going “Ooooh” as though we were on an amusement ride. In the maximum security prison we sat around on benches—a scraggly bunch of tourists with cameras and babies, held in a large communal cell. Our guide was William, who had spent five and a half years imprisoned here in the ‘80s and early 90s, for struggling against the regime. A thin, intense, sad man, he made it painfully clear he did not want to be there, still in this prison, showing tourists his painful past. After the end of apartheid there were not enough government jobs for all the former prisoners. He came, he told us, from the poorest of the poor. His only option was this job. It was, he said, another prison sentence. He’d been here for five years and five years was too much. 
Babies gurgled, sang, cried, as William spoke of Mandela’s experience, and that of the prisoners in the early years—the 1960s and 1970s—whose deprivation and forced labor has been…severe. But Mandela and his peers were not with us. William was. His fragility, his sweet, lost soul swept over us like a tired wind…. 
William blessed us, hoped we’d enjoy his country. For he said, as many others would throughout our journey: “Whatever is wrong with my country, it is very beautiful.”
We saw that beauty, the enormous power of the landscape, on our boat ride back—the stunning views of Table Mountain, shifting mists, the lovely wharf side scenes of Cape Town, its colorful buildings clustered by the sea—so like, so unlike, our own San Francisco. We were disoriented, our sense of things ruptured…. 
 [Later] a group of us had lunch. Gingerly, we tried to talk about it. We compared what we were seeing to our own country. I said: ”If we were strangers traveling to America, and were given a tour of East Oakland, told about the life of youngsters who have seen people shot before their eyes, who can’t play outside because it’s too dangerous, whose fathers and uncles are in prison; if we were told how public schools in poor areas were falling into disrepair for lack of funding, how young African Americans can’t find work— would it seem very different?
I dream I am responsible for a murder. I can’t remember why I did it, or how. Will I be found out? Has the body been burnt—gotten rid of? Can I live with this guilt? I am told the victim’s sister wants to talk to me.
Pumla Gobodo–Madikezela spoke to the Jungian congress. She is softer, more psychological in the personal sense, than is Ramphele. She spoke to us of the psychology of forgiveness. How does one who had a husband, son, grandson stolen from her, tortured and murdered in the most unbearable ways, look into the eyes of the one who did this, see his humanity? How does the one who perpetrated such a horror, look into the eyes of the victim, see her humanity, the preciousness of the life that was taken, and truly say—“I’m sorry.” When this happens, she told us, his humanity is returned to him, hers to her.  

 She told us the story of an Askari—a former black guerilla recruited by the Apartheid security forces— asking forgiveness of the mothers of men he’d killed. In Xhosa he said: “Forgive me my parents.” Pumla kept repeating the Xhosa phrase, with its click, telling us it was much more powerful than the translation. It seemed to center us—that clicking phrase, with its deep sobbing power. One of the Mothers replied, “My son, I forgive you.” We were all a watery mass of tears. 

 Gobodo–Madikezela explained: “Perpetrators bring a story of their own pain, their own rupture. The first step of dehumanization is the dehumanization of the self. They were caught up in the headiness of the moment. As they take in the human consequences of their action it rehumanizes them. They are becoming human in the process of seeing the humanity of the other. We see them as monsters. But this is the moment, the interpersonal engagement when we witness the other not as object, but as subject—the monster becomes human….”  Gobodo–Madikezela explained: “Perpetrators bring a story of their own pain, their own rupture. The first step of dehumanization is the dehumanization of the self. They were caught up in the headiness of the moment. As they take in the human consequences of their action it rehumanizes them. They are becoming human in the process of seeing the humanity of the other. We see them as monsters. But this is the moment, the interpersonal engagement when we witness the other not as object, but as subject—the monster becomes human….”   
Jimmy Jinta came highly recommended as a tour guide. We hired him to take us to the township, Langa. Erel Shalit, an Israeli analyst we’d befriended at a conference in Bulgaria, and his wife Sonia, joined us. Erel and Sonia live near Tel Aviv, where they’ve dealt with history’s evil sorcery— terrorism, war, moral complexity. Sonia told us she had grown up in Congo. When she was a child it was a safe and loving environment for her; she felt close to black people. Now Congo is a hell realm. Langa used to be a hell realm. It is where Jimmy lived, where Pumla Gobodo–Madikezela grew up. During apartheid, he told us, 66,000 families were forcibly removed from their homes and required to live in the crowded townships. Since the end of apartheid there has been much improvement… 
We went to the Baptist Church. We were graciously received and sat amidst the congregation, held by their spoken aloud prayers in Xhosa and in English, held in their fervent song, held in the presence of the mountain whose backside and Devil’s Peak dominate the landscape even here, held in Ubuntu, held in the testifying passion of the women with their braided hair, some pulled up to explode like a fine feathered thing, others pulled back into a bun, or let flow down their backs, held in praise, held in worship, held in the glory of the orange and purple dress of the woman testifying before me. 
Jimmy was learned and eloquent. He used the bully pulpit of tour guide to hold the opposites. He spoke to the good the government has done in building much new housing. And he criticized it for its many failures. He took us to meet Brenda, who lives in an old style hostel—a dark cramped space with one bathroom, whose toilet leaks, whose shower doesn’t work. She shares it with 16 other families. She calls the powers that be, she told us, to complain about the bathroom. They say they’ll come. They never do. She shares her bedroom with the cooking stove for the entire place, her two children, and another family. This is a tiny room, maybe 7x8 feet. She’s been there for ten years waiting to get into new housing. She earns about $60 a month—not enough to buy her own place. I can still see her open, wide face. I saw determination in it, and a deep weariness. I hope she has gotten a new place to live.
I wrote a poem about these experiences in Cape Town:

In Suffering, and Nightmare,
I woke at last 
to my own nature.
                  Frank Bidart
Table Mountain
Knife Edge Mountain
Altar Mountain where the Sacrifice is made
Most Stony South African God
We see you

You follow us all over Cape Town—
where Mandela spoke to the crowd—
We see you

At the Afro Café in the alley
red roses on orange and purple oilcloth
black girl entwined with her white lover
We see you

On Robben Island
where the writing on the wall reads:
“Happy Days Are Here Again!”
William says he’s still imprisoned—
can’t get a job besides this—
being our tour guide in Maximum Security
We see you

At Langa, where Brenda and her sons
share six dark rooms, one stove, one broken toilet
with fifteen other families
You have our number
At the Langa Baptist church
held in the murmur of prayer

in Xhosa    in English
we call you JESUS   HALLELUJAH
Forgive us for what we have done
Forgive us for what we have not

Table Mountain
Knife Edge Mountain
Altar where the Sacrifice is made; You Saw

What did we know?
What did we not know?

O mountain
pull your cloud about you
gnash your teeth
You’ve got our number

Kitchen table mountain
sit us down with those
we’ll never understand
Make betrayer meet betrayer
Make us eat our own stories

                                                 Where does it live?       Such Forgiveness?

What do we know?
What do we not know?

Wise mountain
Dumb mountain

Most Stony South African God
You’ve got our number
Follow us home…

(First published in Left Curve)

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