A Rebel reflects on Otherness and the Meaning of Mandela
Weeks ago, I arrived Johannesburg with frayed nerves, shaking hands and a speech I was half-confident about delivering. I had been invited to speak to a motley selection of people from across the planet – people who had noble concerns aboutthe world; intelligent people who laboured assiduously on the intriguing question of today’s amorphous times: ‘how do we summon a world that works for everyone?’
When I stepped into Room 1509, I, eager for a whiff of the famous city, slumbered towards the welcoming veranda, which offered a most fascinating panoramic view of Braamfontein and her neighbouring communes. I gratefully drank in the city air, feeling rejuvenated by the boisterously formless sounds, the animated colours undulating across the freckled landscapes, and versions of human social arrangement that didn’t boil down to whether I was seated next to window or an aisle. I retreated into my well-furnished quarters – eager to listen to the memories of a land so textured, so nuanced, and so inspiring. All seemed well. But it was only a seeming.
I turned to the pixelated faces of my speech – hoping to beat out a final version before I spoke the next day. Within, the familiar discordant noises of self-doubt immobilized me, and mocked my pretensions to authority. I wasn’t sure that I was the right person to give a speech that challenged the notion of development or the construct of progress; I wasn’t sure I had it in me to stand before such a powerful crowd, and tell them that we needed a new story. I felt weak, tiny and unsure. I again started to wonder why I had been invited to give such an important keynote speech.
It took many moments of staring at my wife and daughter’s pictures to find the get-up-and-go I needed to mouth blasphemous things to my audience. On many occasions, as I delivered the 20-page address, my voice shook, betraying the nagging undercurrents of the night before. I danced with silence and memory, wading through tumultuous waters, disturbing calm puddles, enraging the peace and estranging the familiar. A thoughtful applause rippled through the room when I said my last words. I wasn’t fully satisfied with my ‘performance’, but the animated eyebrows and the ensuing passionate comments told me that I had sparked a trickster’s fire in the lot; I had managed to stir a deep controversy, a simmering conspiracy that had left us all undone – including me.
Many told me in private conversations, days after, that they had been unable to sleep – that I had disturbed their easy boundaries and quiet definitions. What were they to do with these distressing moments? I didn’t offer any solutions – partly because I didn’t have any, but more eminently because I was confused about the voices within, the undying tension and feeling of dissatisfaction that didn’t go to sleep even when the battle was fought and apparently won. I wanted to fully inhabit what was becoming for me a compelling call to resist the status quo with my gifts, to deconstruct normative experiences and live in the fringes, but I was entirely unsure about this calling and its import. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I distrusted my voice. What was going to be my life’s most profound gift, if I accepted the mantle of a rebel?
So I turned to an older troublemaker, Madiba – not sure of what I could learn about his own life, but eager to learn from his own journeys. As we glided through the artsy, cosmopolitan portraits of Johannesburg, our excursion punctuated by the familiar tributes to Mandela’s outstretched arm – public memories etched in glazed stone – I asked my good friend, Irma, about the legacy of Nelson Mandela. “What does he mean to the people of South Africa?” Irma told me about how loved he was, and how much his life and experiences served as a compass for the nation. As I glared at his face, stitched into the newly minted Rand, Irma spoke from a place of throbbing compassion for the state of her country; she expressed concern that the nation was being hijacked by persons who did not deserve to stand in Madiba’s shadow. I listened intently, hoping to latch on to a soothing frequency of wisdom – a stream of ideas that articulated the old rebel’s greatest legacy…and perhaps a prophecy of my own adventures.
And then when I least expected it, when I wasn’t even looking, it came to me. It came vividly through the queer hairdos of the passers-by; it came through the moving street art splattered irreverently on back-alley walls, painted on street lamps; it emerged from silent gestures and wild motions, from the different hues of coloured faces that didn’t conveniently fit into the political binary of ‘white versus black’; it came from the fleeting whiff of caffeinated circles of conversation, from the trumpets and festival sounds of dancing mothers on the street outside my hotel. I suddenly appreciated how Mandela had unleashed a sacred culture of difference, a weird politics of chaos, a story of Otherness.
The One Who Tugged at Branches had disturbed the whole tree. His life was a stentorian rejection of convenient hierarchies, of social inevitabilities, of sectarian heavens and nightly courts of judgment. As a young lawyer, Mandela was animated by the struggles of his people and the shared quests for freedom. As he surveyed the violence of an oppressive regime towards black people, Mandela must have entertained dreams of a world free from white tyranny. His swashbuckling career, his fighter’s fist and natural presence propped him in the forefront of a swordfight that left many defeated.
It would take 27 years in the cellar for the true story of freedom to mature. Incarcerated and bitter, Mandela became the 466th prisoner on Robben Island in the year 1964. Almost immediately, his incarceration became a symbol of liberation, a story of emancipation. The world chanted ‘Free Mandela’ – urging the powers that were to relinquish their hold on new possibilities.
When he walked out of his holding place of three decades, the old warrior walked out with his sword still hoisted; however, this time, it was a double-edged sword, the very kind that wounds the captive as well as the wielder. His emblazoned fist, piercing repeatedly through the congealed atmosphere of injustice as if to hasten its end, might have signified victory to his exuberant people – but it was a deeper story it told. I think his fist said “we are one; there are no sides!”. There were no final victors and no need for surrender. The spoils of his war were his textured reflections about the magnificence of the human spirit and the beauty of difference. Mandela learned the hard way that freedom wasn’t truly complete unless it emancipated ‘them’ as well as ‘us’.
Without anyone really noticing the silent transformations in his inner landscapes, Mandela outmaneuvered our expectations and shocked us all. In 1990, when he was released, I was hardly able to put my hand round my head to touch my ear, but I heard the stories, the many songs, and the way everyone spoke glowingly about Mandela. Instead of paying back his tormentors with kind, he invited them to the same feast that marked his release and his apotheosis. His ill-placed smile and anomalous performances of benevolence and reconciliation seemed to suggest that the true tragedy of his plot wasn’t his confinement or even the injustices his people had suffered – but the decomposing carcass of the ‘Other’ we all had somehow left to die in the village square. Consequently, Mandela’s lifelong quest was to reanimate that political body, and exalt it in our collective consciousness. He became the paradoxical warrior, the masked bandit without cocksure allegiances or final doctrines.
It was as if the universe folded back on itself to teach us something in those powerful moments – to teach us that our lives are threads woven into intimately intricate embroideries of possibility, and our differences and many worldviews make these patterns more beautiful.
The story that is Nelson Mandela must now echo in places out of ordinary reach. As cascading announcements about his passing tumbled in one after the other, I realized just how much Mandela meant to me. His amazing life, a product of the times, was the very permission I needed to live mine just as preposterously, and to listen and own the voices in my soul.
Today, the world’s social networks were inundated with questions about who could become the ‘next Mandela’. I suspect that we will not only fail to find ‘another Mandela’, we do not need to. Yes, it might seem a controversial claim to make, but I think the world doesn’t need more Mandelas – no more than it needs the old plots of genocide and the assumptions that made apartheid possible. We don’t need another hero – because the old guard of heroes is fading away. We needed them at some point; they beat out paths through the forest, and inspired us to follow close to their heels. They gifted us with many pathways, with thoughts, with conversations, with identities, and – finally – with the idea that they are no longer needed. We no longer occupy the same world Mandela fought and thrived in; the parameters are changing. Today’s heroes were only hinted at in the heydays of Mandela, Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The stories of those times could not yet fathom the thrilling and incendiary idea that we – you and I – in our utter banality, in our un-manicured wildness, in our unphotoshopped ordinariness – are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
This is the new story tugging at our consciousness. Madiba was an articulate reminder of the nobleness and greatness of the human spirit. His voice was loud so I can recognize the dignity of my many places of silence. We are yet to fully comprehend the vast importance of his message – or how it is that greatness is the hidden path to the commonplace. The greatest of us are the ones that remind us of our collective magnificence, of the royalty in our bloods, of the extraordinary that is seeded in the familiar.
Mandela was a memory of a future we once lived and flourished in. His legacy transcends the dialectics of black politics or white dominance; he was something a lot deeper than our denominational intuitions allow. He taught us that forgiveness is not so much about how much we are willing to let the other go free, it is about how much we recognize ourselves in the other. It is about changing our language to allow for new gestalts to emerge; it is about recognizing that we cannot judge that which we do not even understand – and that if we were to truly understand, there would be no need to judge. It is about seeing that you are another me, and I am another you.
In this sense, I am Madiba – for I recognize how my otherness is an echo of our strange interconnectedness, how his story and struggle for new possibilities is what animates every one of us. And yet, Madiba’s life suggests to me that I am ecstatically free to be myself, to embrace my difference, to speak my language, to fashion my myths, to challenge the stories of my culture, and to live a life of my own making. I am free to allow my voice quake, to say what I need to say, to tell my own stories. Even if I fail at all of this, I am no less magnificent.
His life was a pataphor, a festival inviting the queer, the notorious, the saint and the outlaw. And it is this mantle we bear today. We must co-create spaces that make room for the rebel, the conformist, those we conveniently label ‘evil’ or ‘unworthy’, and those who have done the labelling. Only then will we dance to the tunes Mandela struggled to listen to.
As the Elders bow their heads in respectful silence, ushering Madiba into realms unknown, let us remember our many, untelevised wars against the Other. Perhaps it is now time to call a truce. Perhaps it is time to organize many spontaneous expeditions into the realms of the ‘Other’, the final frontier. Some say love will ferry us there; others say a new kind of feminine society will do away with the impregnable chasms of ossified difference. Whatever vehicle we prefer, we can stay here no longer – trapped as we are behind these walls of separation. For the sake of our ‘evolution’, we can no longer abide the choking atmosphere of safety, the silent chuckle of dumbed down sanity. We must traverse the known lands into strange horizons; we must embrace our shadows and relax our tense strongholds in defence of these empires of inherited anger. We must break down – much like the ones we call ‘depressed’ do over and over again. But it is when we break into the earth, when we surrender to decay, and when we are buried in the dirt that new forms of life will spring forth…and, in our emergence, we will see ourselves through the perspicuity of our grateful tears – and the dance of Madiba – as brothers and sisters we never knew.