In Hope of Peace Not War
9 October 2018
I am so delighted to speak to you tonight in the centenary year of Nelson Mandela. Thank you for inviting me. Your invitation came just as I was retiring from my job at the University of the Free State…. but not from my work as I reminded my colleagues and friends. I cannot see myself ever retiring from my work. In South Africa the law allows women to retire at the age of sixty. When I turned 60 in January this year I was so ready to free myself from the restraints of an institution. I longed for an opportunity to fly freely like a bird, singing the songs from deep within me that long for expression.
It is not that I have not spoken my truth and stood against injustice before now but as long as I have had family responsibilities and worked for some company or institution, I realised that these would always be constraints whether I wanted to admit it or not.
I was so impatient that I could not work out the year and decided to leave at the end of June. In retrospect it was a bit silly because I am still working on an edited book on journalism education and it is taking longer than I had thought. I might as well have stayed on till the end of this year because there has not really been much rest for the wicked.
Yet if I had stayed on I may not have accepted this invitation and missed out on this wonderful moment.
It is a truly wonderful moment for me because not only do I address you in Mandela’s centenary year, I also speak with you just two weeks after world leaders met at the United Nations to declare the next decade the Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace.
They met also to unveil a statue of Mandela that South Africa has gifted to the United Nations.
So it is a proud moment for us as South Africans and for those people from across the world who have walked with us to defeat apartheid.
Apartheid was an authoritarian system of racial superiority that placed us in different boxes preventing us from living together in peace. It was a system that tore us into so many pieces that today we continue to struggle to heal the divisions and the pain. When the world thought it had defeated Nazism in 1945, it’s ideology of racial superiority found a way to take root in South Africa. In 1948, this beast slouched from Europe and took colonial rule to greater heights.
What makes me very happy today is that instead of using my time to make war against a system that entrenched racial separation I can instead use my time to find ways to rebuild a broken country.
I am of a generation that refused to accept racial classification and white rule. I am of a generation that learnt it is possible to bring change through our own efforts. Sometimes we think a problem is too big to solve. It is important to remember that any small action you take to solve that problem helps. Those small actions tumble together into a ball of bigger actions that eventually flattens and destroys injustice. The important thing is not to give up but to stay focussed for the long haul.
Last year I described myself as a long distance runner. Someone committed to persevere and stay focussed on the distant vision as I plod along. The late President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania spoke at our parliament in the late 1990s. I was a senior political editor reporting on his speech. He said we needed to always bear in mind that all of Southern Africa was at war with their colonial oppressors 50 years ago and now all of Southern Africa was at peace.
While we appear to have solved some of our grave historical challenges we find ourselves living at a time when world affairs are far from calm. Economically and politically we live at a time of considerable uncertainty unsure of what the future will bring.
The world is becoming smaller and smaller and our fate is becoming intricately linked to the fate of all of humanity.
It has forced me to think more deeply about why the United Nations has declared the next decade the year of peace. Why has Graca Machel, Mandela’s widow and a Southern African leader of considerable stature, implored leaders to set aside their egos and find solutions to the violent conflicts engulfing parts of the world?
Is it not that it is clear for all to see that conditions are ripe for another world war?
How long will the United States hang on to its position of dominance ? Will China’s growth allow it to take over as the dominant superpower? .
There is rising economic inequality across the world and the burgeoning of right wing movements often opposed to multilaterism.
Instead of us understanding that we have to find fair ways to coexist we draw away into isolation thinking that this changed world of ours can somehow be wished away through bullying.
Is this not a period in world history that we need to prepare ourselves and our children for a fast changing present and future?.
Is the challenge of the moment not doing everything to understand others who appear different to us?
I encourage my students to seek out diverse settings because the more we interact with others who appear different from ourselves the more we will be prepared for the road ahead. My parents encouraged us always not to discriminate ..not to reject Christian and Jewish people because they were not Muslim. Not to turn the poor away from our door when they need food. To be as kind to others black and white.
When I came to the USA to study at Columbia University in 1995, we had thrown off the shackles of apartheid and I was no longer a disenfranchised citizen. A friend of a friend had arranged that I live in a room in an apartment on 110th street and Amsterdam Avenue. What did not know was that she had rented the apartment to another woman and now took the liberty to rent a room to me.
Mary Kay Blakeley was a writer and was away for a short while when I arrived. Not realising that this was her apartment and not ours together I started cleaning up and moving things around as I wished. When she arrived two weeks later she was not too pleased. I looked at her and all my prejudices kicked in. She was 10 years older than me and wearing shorts. This was not something I was used to seeing mature women do back home. She seemed to be hyperactive and my first thoughts were that this was not going to be easy. I was going to be stuck with this woman for 9 months.
All I saw was an agitated white woman whom I concluded was typically American. I could not easily understand what she was saying because of her accent. I would have to grin and bear it because the rental was low. I thought to myself I can do this. It’s only for 9 months.
We both retreated to our rooms and only emerged when we needed to make coffee or tea in the kitchen. Soon we found ourselves staying longer and longer in the kitchen. I was telling her stories from home and she was telling me her stories.
In the end we found we had so much in common. We were both single parents …she raising two sons and I a daughter. We both were feminists and worked to support women. I had been involved in the anti-apartheid resistance movement and she in the anti Vietnam war protests.
We were more similar in our experiences than different. This was a huge wake up call for me.
I was forced to let go of my prejudiced attitude towards her. I grew to love her that year…to accept her as my sister. She has been to South Africa twice and I am on my way to visit her in Missouri this weekend.
I know now that she too looked at me with blinkered eyes. All she saw was a needy student from Africa whom the landlady had imposed on her. She had rented the flat to have a quiet space in order to write. She was resentful that once again she had to look after somebody and consider them. We still laugh about this now.
It forced me to rethink my understanding of countries and people. Perhaps John Lennon was right when he urged us to imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do…nothing to kill or die for. …no religion too…
Wars are not like those of old where leaders fight it out. Wars now destroy our young and poor leaving leaders intact. The only people smiling are those who sell arms and win tenders to rebuild bombed countries.
In 2003 I finally write my first book. It is titled Our Generation and it tells the story of the journey of my emotions over 21 years. I always hesitate when I have to speak about those difficult times. And my daughter is so aware of this. So this morning she sent me a supportive voice message which I will play to you. Our Generation records my story and so does the Truth and Reconciliation testimonies. You can Google it and you can also read more on my personal website. It’s not that I want you to do your own research – although that will be a good thing – but I genuinely find that when I rehash these memories I risk getting ill. It is like something starts churning in the pit of my stomach and sometimes it takes me days to recover. So all I will do is to play u my daughter’s message now…
I was pregnant with her when I was detained and tortured a second time in 1985. They threatened to burn her from my body.
In January 1986 we understood that Nelson Mandela would soon be released. The Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group(EPG) was in the country and had had talks with him and apartheid leaders. They had also travelled to Lusaka in Zambia to meet with Oliver Tambo, the leader of the banned African National Congress(ANC).
Our hopes were high when Winnie Mandela confirmed that the release was imminent. Sadly the apartheid state pulled back and sent fighter planes into neighbouring in July 1986 to kill and injure our neighbours as a warning that they should not help us. This was nothing new. Apartheid SA was a bully and used our resources to make war instead of searching for ways to peacefully coexist. Their mayhem continued for four more years before they released him.
With the dawn of a democratic South Africa, all that has ended. We no longer use our army to kill people in other countries. Often our young people today don’t realise that it had taken huge effort just to secure the right to be South African. Under apartheid my family was classified Cape Malay and fell under the authority of the Coloured Affairs department. We were seen as Non White and could go to schools and universities allocated for Non Whites. Non White was further subdivided into several categories one of which was coloured.
By the time I wrote Our Generation I was proudly South African and free from all labels imposed on me. The book ends in the year 2000. It was the end of the Mandela presidency and I had been fortunate to report on his term. Unravelling apartheid was difficult and by 2012 we started experiencing the difficult challenges of corruption. There were several times that I had to hang my head in shame at the unjust conduct of our government. It has taken a monumental effort of many South Africans to bring us back on course.
That statue of Mandela at the United Nations serves as a reminder of the values we fought for and have to aspire to. While this serves as an inspiration and I am pleased that a small country like ours plays a significant role on the world stage, we are a small country with many difficult economic and social challenges. It would be naieve to think that a statute of Nelson Mandela at the UN will make a significant impact to push back those determined to reject multilateralism. Significant groups in different countries including yours have little interest in working through the United Nations. They see it as a waste of time. If we are seriously concerned about war and peace we have to find time to assess how relevant the UN is in the present unfolding dramas and what kind of action plan we can develop to involve ordinary people in all our countries.
Commonwealth countries sent the EPG to us in 1986 but in the end the Apartheid state could let loose their fighter jets and scupper peace efforts. The fortitude of millions of South Africans and ordinary people across the world finally ended an awful system of racial oppression.
During the resistance years, there were two driving forces in my mind : one was to win the right for my primary identity to be South African and the second one was to create a fair country with no poverty. I won that first right when all my family members and I voted for the first time on 27 April 1994. I continue to dream that we will create a fair country with no poverty and a large part of my life is consumed with efforts to create this reality.
This brings me to another dimension of my story. I said earlier that the book ends in the year 2000. What I did not say is that the book ended on 9/7, four days before two planes struck the world trade centre in New York.
In that one explosive action my primary identity became Muslim. I was no longer a South African journalist but a Muslim woman journalist. My Muslim identity which I always held close to my heart suddenly superseded all else and became the dominant identity within which I engaged with the world. Suddenly I became conscious that my writing mentor Albie Sachs was Jewish. This was never foremost in my consciousness. Albie was a freedom fighter exiled from our country and came back to eventually serve as judge on the newly established Constitutional Court.
Suddenly religious affiliation seeped through our public life becoming a divisive line we had never experienced before. When I visited your country in 2006 I was taken off for questioning at Atlanta airport. After that I was very reluctant to visit again. And I have not been back in 10 years.
I do not really feel comfortable with identity labels. I believe I am a tiny dot of energy in the universe, a child of God and part of a common humanity. But in this increasingly polarised atmosphere I needed to assert my right to be whoever I want to be. So when I came through JFK airport on Saturday morning I made sure that I had my headscarf on. In South Africa we call the headscarf a Doek.
When the courageous Winnie Mandela died this year, young women in our country started the Doek Movement to demonstrate that we identify with her and are outraged by how she was treated.
I hope that I can encourage some of the young women I see here tonight to support the doek movement and wear a doek from time to time in order to break free from the limitations that we sometimes impose on ourselves.
African and Muslim women wear the doek with a great sense of pride. Let us wear it as part of building a campaign for peace before some men decide to take us all to war.
Thank you again for honouring me with this invitation.