Surprises from Post-Apartheid South Africa

I know I’ve posted more in the past few weeks than, like, the entire year before. But this kind of amazing thing happened and at what I think is a significant time, so I thought I’d share it.

Every so often, while I’m doing research, I’m drawn to particular books and don’t know why at the time. Sometimes it’s the entire book that turns out to be important, or I stumble across an amazing quote in it. Occasionally, it turns out to be something else.

For instance, about six months ago I was studying about Mohamed Amin, the Kenyan photojournalist who was in great part responsible for photo images and videos shown round the world of the Ethiopian famine of 1984. It had taken weeks to discover there was even a biography available, after I’d attempted to piece together snippets from articles here and there. I found copies of The Man Who Moved the World: The Life and Work of Mohamed Amin available on Amazon. I picked one that wasn’t the absolute cheapest, but for some reason … that particular one was *the* one I just felt drawn to. And what a surprise, when it arrived and I opened it up to the title page, it had been signed and inscribed in Addis Ababa by one of the co-authors, Mohamed’s son, Salim! However did that book land in a small bookstore in the Western US, starting its journey in Ethiopia? And yet, it seemed destined for my library at this, its appointed time …

Well, I’ve been studying apartheid in South Africa and the role that peace-making played in the 1990s, and how Nelson Mandela in particular sought to reduce enmity between blacks and whites, and to forge a sense of one nation out of what had been a horrific race-based split in two. I’d watched Invictus, including all the related special feature interviews, about how the 1995 Rugby World Cup became a symbolic center for uniting the nation. And I’ve watched the documentary of Reconciliation: Mandela’s Miracle, and am reading Knowing Mandela: A Personal Portrait by John Carlin, a long-time British reporter in South Africa. (He’s also the author of the book that was used as the basis for the movie Invictus.) There are deep lessons on both humility and having a conciliatory spirit, and how these two complementary attitudes can fuel peace-making efforts that embody “compassion, restraint, and generosity” — three qualities absent toward blacks under apartheid, according to a speech Mandela gives to fellow black South Africans in Invictus.

Before this, I had bits and pieces of knowledge about apartheid, gleaned over the years. For instance, I’d long known of the “Black Sash” society, a protest movement started by white women in South Africa to support racial equality and justice. Recently, I felt like it was time to find out more. My search for what would be the best book to read for my research purposes turned up a relatively old and rare book published almost 25 years ago by an international publisher: Black Sash: The Beginning of a Bridge in South Africa, by Kathryn Spink, who has focused her writing on important spiritual figures like Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier of L’Arche, and Brother Roger of Taize. I picked this title in part because it was written during a significant time of transition for that country, in the early 1990s.

Unlike with the book about Mohamed Amin, this time I happened to be drawn to the least expensive copy available — almost $20 less than the next lowest price one available! — and from a relatively new US seller on Amazon. Who knows … maybe the previous week it hadn’t even been available. But then, it just seemed the time to do this. And lo and behold, when it arrived and I opened it up to gaze inside, there in the front was the original purchase receipt from June 4, 1996, directly from the Black Sash Advice Office in Durban, South Africa. Plus three different business and information cards from their Legal Resources Centre! Those pieces in themselves were of historical interest, so I was delighted to actually be able to hold and examine them — concrete-oriented person that I am, as shown by my first-ever declared professional goal at age 7, which was to become a classical archaeologist. Again, I could only imagine the providential route this book had taken from the land of Durban to land in suburban California!

Well, the past few days have included breaks from writing about systems of spiritual abuse. While clearing off my desk, I was getting ready to move the Black Sash book to a read-next box. I went to pick it up and noticed there seemed either a mis-cut page or something else wrong with it, as something was sticking out, ever so slightly. I carefully flipped the pages to that spot, and lo and behold, there were some original flyers from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission! (I found the TRC website, and saw that their motto was: “Truth, the Road to Reconciliation.”)

I’d learned from the historical documentary that the Commission was created to investigate human rights violations during the previous 30+ years of apartheid – and to open a way for survivors of such abuse to tell their stories. The TRC hearings have been critiqued by some, lauded by others, but at least it was a chance for sharing the truth and be heard – whether as one who victimized, or as the recipient. And, as I have seen repeatedly in the past few years, when survivors of abuse share their accounts of what happened, and are listened to respectfully and reflectively, there’s very often a significant transformation that takes place. Something fundamental changes. I wonder if, for some who finally receive (or give themselves) permission to share their story, that is a moment when their trajectory shifts from “victim” to “survivor.”

These small flyers – 21cm wide by 15 cm tall, folded in half – were printed in English on one half and Zulu on the other. They invited people to talk about their experiences, and note that hearings would begin May 6, 1996. So this book I was holding was purchased one month into that process. Here is the opening paragraph from the flyer:

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created by the Government of National Unity to investigate and report on gross human rights violations committed between 1960 and 1993. It will also consider applications for amnesty by people who committed political crimes. The Commission will be in operation until December 1997.

I do not know who owned this book before me, but I just have to believe he/she was a witness to one of the more important moments and movements in the history of the 20th century. And I have a sense that I was meant to have their book and to unearth the unexpected treasure of these artifacts, which testify to important efforts made to bring peace to a troubled nation. I share now second-hand in that original witness, but can always glean first-hand lessons from those who’ve gone before and from my own contemporaries who are survivors of violence upon their soul.



2 thoughts on “Surprises from Post-Apartheid South Africa

    • Absolutely, Jan! Quite convinced. Not that it took all that much, given the great finds inside …

      As it turns out, some of *the* most important books I’ve run across have an exploration story that goes with them. Like *Grey is the Color of Hope* – the prison diary by Soviet dissident Irina Ratushinskaya. I was at a used bookstore and in an entire section of books, it seemed to be the only one that was laying across the tops of other books that were all nice and neatly shelved upright. So of course it stuck out visually. It is one of the top three books I’ve read (and re-read!) ever.

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