11 May
Mandela Lecture: Gardens of hope amid the darkness of despair

Posted by Kenneth Helphand in the Gardens: Theory & Practice archive

MandelaFor the memory to flow into the open, the fear also had to flow out; there had to be a societal space where the portrait from the past could be safe

It may seem paradoxical that a meditation dealing with memory and meant to celebrate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela should start with the confession that I cannot recall the date when I first heard his name.

When he was arrested in 1962, I was 20 and a bit of a firebrand myself, taking time off from my studies at the University of Chile in Santiago to fight the police in the streets and help organise slum dwellers in the shantytowns of my impoverished nation.

South Africa was already the symbol of the most unjust and inhumane system in the world, but its struggle was a mere glimmer, resplendent yet distant, on the consciousness of a generation whose heroes were Che Guevara and Salvador Allende, who was to become the first socialist elected by democratic means as president of Chile in 1970.

Even during the three years of Allende’s peaceful revolution, whose ideals could have been modelled on the Freedom Charter of the ANC, even during those 1000 days when we did our best to create a country where no child was hungry, no peasant was landless and no foreign corporations owned our soil and our souls, I can’t recall that we specifically protested against Mandela’s captivity, except as part of a general repudiation of apartheid.

It was only after Allende died in a military coup in 1973, only after I went into exile, that the name Mandela gradually became a beacon of hope, a sort of home to me. By the 1970s, of course, he had already solidified into a symbol of how our spirit cannot be broken by brutality, but his significance to me also grew out of the collusion of the governments that misruled our respective people.

The government that imprisoned him and his fellow patriots and denied them and millions of South Africans their basic rights turned out to be one of the scant allies of the South American dictatorship that banished me and was ravaging my land.

Vorster and Botha were the pals of Augusto Pinochet: they exchanged medals, ambassadors and pariah-state visits; they sent each other admiring gifts; they shared weapons and intelligence and even tear-gas canisters.

I could continue with unfortunate and shameful examples, but one intersection of South African and Chilean terror should suffice: in 1976, the year of the Soweto massacre, we were suffering a slow massacre of our own, the Chilean junta and Pinochet were making infamous the system of disappearing people.

My increasing reverence for Mandela in the 1970s and 1980s cannot be separated from the fact that his people and my people were bent on a parallel quest for justice against a brotherhood of enemies who wanted us to disappear from the face of the earth, as if our very memory had never existed.

Even so, it was not until Chile regained its democracy in 1990 and Mandela’s release in the same year, it was not until both countries began to wrestle with the dilemmas of how you confront the terrors of the past without becoming a hostage to the hatred engendered by that past, it was not until both South Africa and Chile were forced to ask themselves the same burning questions about remembrance and dialogue in our similar transitions to democracy that Madiba became more than a legend to me and, with his wisdom and pragmatic compassion, grew into a guide for contemporary humanity.

A few years back, while giving away books to school children in a Chilean shanty-town as part of an NGO’s literacy programme, I was approached by an old carpenter. “If it’s true that you worked by the side of Salvador Allende,” he said, “I have a story to tell you.” Carlos - that was his name, if I’m not mistaken - had been an enthusiastic supporter of the socialist government. Allende had created a programme that helped Carlos to buy his first and only house, Allende had understood why children should have free milk and lunch at school, Allende had filled that carpenter with hope that workers need not be forever dispossessed of a future.

Following the military takeover of September 11 1973 that left Allende buried in an unmarked grave and his image forbidden, soldiers raided the carpenter’s neighbourhood, breaking down doors, beating, arresting and shooting residents. Terror-stricken, Carlos hid a picture of the martyred president behind the boards of one of the walls of his house, where it remained throughout the 17 years of the dictatorship. He did not remove it even when democracy returned to Chile.

It is an inspiring story, because Carlos was not a militant, a soldier of the revolution sacrificing himself for the common good. That made his gesture all the more significant. An inspiring story, but also sobering.

Mandela has explained how “at the very heart of every oppressive tool developed by the apartheid regime was a determination to control, distort, weaken and even erase people’s memories”.

Memory does not exist in a vacuum. If there had been no justice, if Pinochet had not been made to face judges and answer for his crimes, the memory of that carpenter would have remained encapsulated. For the memory to flow into the open, the fear also had to flow out; there had to be a societal space where the portrait from the past could be safe.

Carlos was eventually able to bring together his private and his public memory because others had risked everything in order for liberation to exist. For one memory of resistance to persevere, it needs to eventually belong to a savannah of commonality. It cannot prevail against violence and censorship if it does not join a vast archive of other forbidden memories.

The case of that carpenter is sobering, no matter how fervently admirable his loyalty, because the very isolation and secrecy of his hideaway also reveal how ultimately precarious any merely inner and covert rebellion can be.

In 1997, on my first, and until now only, visit to your country, I was taken to District Six in Cape Town, that site of conscience that commemorates what happened in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood torn apart by discrimination.

As I toured the museum with one of its guardians, he told me about a recent hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

A policeman of Afrikaner origin admitted killing the parents of a child and expressed regret for his actions. When the grandmother of the boy asked him who would care for this orphan when she was dead, the policeman answered after a pause: “Then I guess I will have to take the child home with me.”

It is a wondrous story. So perfect, in fact, that as soon as I was invited to deliver this lecture, I decided to make use of it here this afternoon. And in order to give that chronicle more historical heftiness, I tried to track it down through my friends at the Mandela Foundation, but in spite of assiduous research, no concrete reference was uncovered.

Nor could the curators of the District Six Museum, or several journalists and writers, recall the anecdote. There was always the same answer: nobody could summon up that story. I cannot, therefore, offer a name now, put flesh and blood on the protagonists.

Above all, I would like to concentrate on the homeless orphan and what it might mean to him to be taken care of, to be truly cared for. Because all my words are meaningless unless they reach that child, unless they help fashion a world which that child deserves to inherit, unless the stories I have been telling speak to that boy who lost his parents. I wonder, in fact, if that child, now grown, is not listening to this lecture, if he will not come forward in the days ahead to claim his public place, emerge from the hazy boundaries of storytelling into the history of his country, like the photo of Allende yearned to emerge into the history of my own land.

Think of children like him, boys like him, girls like him, all over the world. Think of them as potentially homeless because of our actions.

Let us attend then to the message of hope that Mandela has been sending us.

One of the major pleasures of Madiba during his captivity was his garden. He tells often of how uplifting it was to plant and harvest under the sun and rain, to be in control of that small patch of earth when he controlled nothing else in the world except his dignity and his memories and his comrades. He tells us of the joy of sharing with his fellow prisoners, but also with his jailers, the bounty that his labours produced, what he and the land birthed into existence in spite of the injustice and the sorrow and the separations.

Mandela’s garden is not a fluke, an exception. Recently I have been reading a book called Defiant Gardensby Kenneth Helphand, who recounts the story of gardens created improbably in the midst of the viciousness of war. The desperate gardens of the Warsaw ghetto and the stone gardens cultivated by the Japanese Americans in their internment camps during World War 2, the vegetable beds fashioned in the shadow of the trenches of World War 1, the gardens which flourished minimally, at first hesitantly, then insolently, and always with gentleness, as the bombs fell in Vietnam and as American soldiers prepared to fight in Korea and the Persian Gulf.

What is fascinating is that these diverse and divergent gardeners do not align themselves on the same side in war; they might even be sworn enemies. Yet, they are all human, they all hunger for flowers and fruit, they all ache to keep alive a hint that something will grow in spite of the surrounding night of destruction.

There is no guarantee that we will ever reach the deep reconciliation we need as a species. Indeed, I tend to think that some damage done is irreparable. I notice that when justice comes infrequently, the most long-lasting memories are in danger of fading. But when despair visits me, I hold on to the image of the garden. A garden that grows like memories should. A garden that grows as justice should. A garden that grows like true reconciliation should.

And do not forget that for crops and vegetables, for leaves and trees, to grow, we need to sing to them. We need to sing to the earth so it will forgive us and continue to provide hope. We need to always remember the multiple, infinite gardens of Nelson Mandela and his people.

Dorfman is the author of the famous Death and the Maiden, among other plays and books. His website is www.arieldorfman.com. For a complete version of the lecture, visit www.timeslive.co.za.

42 Responses to “Mandela Lecture: Gardens of hope amid the darkness of despair”

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    Hey, very nice website. I actually came across Mandela Lecture: Gardens of hope amid the darkness of despair–
    Defiant Gardens on Bing, and I am happy I did. I will definately be coming back here more often. Wish I could add to the conversation and bring a bit more to the table, but am just absorbing as much info as I can at the moment. Thank You

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