I thought I’d take a moment from my usual Chump Lady blogging about cheaters, sex addicts, affair partners, quacks, misplaced thongs, unicorns, STDs, and divorce and reflect on the passing of Nelson Mandela.
Like 99.99 percent of the world’s population — I stood in awe of the man. I think the .001 percent who didn’t like him were some crazy Afrikaaners in the former Orange Free State trying to build a white homeland — and even those wing nuts probably had some affection for the guy. You’ve probably read the laudatory obituaries and I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t know.
So let me tell you what South Africa means personally to me, and how really there would be no Chump Lady today if it were not for 21 year old me spending a year in South Africa in 1988-89 on a fellowship. I got a Thomas J. Watson fellowship for a year’s independent study, and I wanted to go interview anti-apartheid activists and liberation theologians in South Africa. (Which gives you an idea of what kind of young person I was — insufferably earnest.)
That place kicked my ass. I learned pretty quickly exactly how foreign I was — how white, how female, how American, and how clueless. I will give myself credit for not being one of those awful Americans who went on “fact finding” missions for 2 weeks and then had All the Answers for South Africa. I knew after 5 minutes living there, I had no idea what I was doing.
As a white person — I got the paranoia. For the first time in my life, I felt a minority. Not just in the racial sense, but in an economic sense. What it was like to live in a paradise surrounded by the most crushing poverty imaginable. I was afraid a lot. I lived in Observatory, outside Cape Town. Every day people knocked on my door begging. And when I made a sandwich, my roommates yelled at me not to, because it would only encourage more people (usually women with little kids) to show up. I opened my door once to find a drunk man who’d been stabbed in the neck, looking for help. And I couldn’t call for help because he was “colored” and the hospital literally ACROSS THE STREET would not take him. Couldn’t call the police, because he feared *he* would be arrested for drunkenness. So he wandered off, and I have no idea what happened to him.
And that wasn’t even the scary stuff, chumps. I met people who’d been detained and tortured. I dated a human rights law student and got my phone tapped. I went to rallies at churches where they handed out “next of kin” cards in the offertory plates. (You know, in case you get arrested on the way out.) I saw water cannons and tear gas. I taught in townships — adult education. People trying to get an 8th grade degrees, after work, at night, in a place with no electricity.
And from the beaches in Cape Town, on a clear day, I could see Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was.
I left South Africa thinking it was going to be a civil war.
And — we all know how the story ends — it wasn’t. A miracle happened. A messy, imperfect miracle — but a miracle nonetheless. Today South Africa is a democracy.
This is what South Africa taught me about infidelity — that the worst things can bring out the best in people. I met some insanely brave people. I learned that oppression results in a tenacious, fearless creativity. The most exciting part of living in South Africa then was the theater, the banned newspapers, the music. Revolution is exhilarating. I discovered satire — the power in laughing at your oppressor. You think you’re better than me? Really? You’re ridiculous.
I once saw Archbishop Desmond Tutu deliver a sermon — and when he used a big word like “incontrovertible” — he spelled it out slowly for the policeman in the front row.
South Africa was full of the feistiest bunch of bad asses. And it was also full of cowards trying to maintain “neutrality.” I knew who I wanted to be. I hung around the bad asses, and God bless them, they were kind to me.
South Africa taught me bravery. To call out the mindfuckery, the obvious manipulations. To see that the whole system of apartheid was really nothing more than a narcissistic minority trying to gain advantage over the majority. There was no dressing it up — it was ugly and wrong, and had to end.
And those stakeholders, who didn’t want it to end, had a lot of excuses similar to cheaters — you’re undeserving of democracy. You’re not smart enough. You’re not ready. I am the superior race, I shall do as I like. To the international community — you’re not the boss of me! To the blacks — Well, we had to oppress you, you asked us to, you’re NOTHING without us.
I learned about (as the African writer Ngugi WaThiongo coined it) “colonizing minds.” That it’s not enough to change your circumstances, you must decolonize your mind. You must shake off these ideas that you are inferior.
Nelson Mandela never seemed to suffer from a colonized mind. He was a person who knew his worth. Who rose above 27 years of imprisonment, much of it hard labor — to be a statesman. The first democratically elected president of South Africa. They say Mandela never had a hard time being magnanimous to whites, because he never felt inferior to them. And he was far, far too practical.
He once said he didn’t waste time hating — because it was bad strategy.
Chumps could learn a lot from that. Fuck what they did to you. Don’t let it get in the way of your glorious future. Dwelling on those assholes is bad strategy.
Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela.