In 1994 Nelson Mandela stood in front of his nation in Cape Town and delivered his first speech as President of the Republic of South Africa. From this platform he looked over Table Bay and could see Robben Island where he had been imprisoned and he talked about democracy founded on the majority principle.
We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.
Rising up to rise others up along the way, to unify a nation divide, to set prisoners free, to invest in democracy as the primary tool of liberation from division and hatred is noble. It is a quest that starts with resistance, that experiences repression, violence, imprisonment, often creating with martyrs sacrificed along the way leads to building a movement that has a life of its own. Finding a way home to justice and equity where those previously disenfranchised are restored, made whole and opportunities appear not as a privilege but a right, requires a collective consciousness but more importantly a collective compassion to transcend old wounds to bring spectacular healing powers to policy and programs, to hearts and minds.
As South Africa transitioned to democracy, unfurled a new flag they embedded an old song ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika‘ into the national anthem. It was composed in 1897 as a hymn with lyrics from the five most widely spoken of South Africa‘s eleven official languages – Xhosa (first stanza, first two lines), Zulu (first stanza, last two lines), Sesotho (second stanza), Afrikaans (third stanza), and English (final stanza). The hymn, a promise, a prayer is a call to action, a call to be blessed. The blessing: to be saved from war and suffering, and to hear the crags echoing the landscape. Surely these are the blessings that come when we turn our attention to the highest forms of democracy? How do we hear from the crags, those rugged outcrops among the cliffs? The wail of the wind, the natural power of the flowers pushing through to bloom, the migratory birds nesting from predators, are these not the blessings from the refuges created by the crags? Or are they places of exile, holding the freedom fighters till they can come down to the plain? The land and the sea are both blessing and blessed.
Constructing an order where justice is the foundation was the challenge of South Africa and having their first democratic elections in 1994 to elect Mandela was hard fought and looking out over Robben Island on his inauguration day was great staging. There is always imprisonment before liberation, captives need to be set free. Being locked up internally before the blessed release of forgiveness is true for us as individuals as it is for a nation.
As my country prepares for another national election, our own Robben Island where we detain those seeking freedom from persecution is invisible from our coastline. Manus and Nauru are a long way off our shores. The freedom fighters of South Africa looked to their own people for a solution and found a political one through the African National Congress and a world wide wave of disapproval to apartheid that eventually brought democracy. The clumsy efforts of our world to bring democracy to war torn lands creating a refugee movement unprecedented for more than two generations means people are finding their way to far flung places like Australia and yet we are not fully embracing that offering asylum could be part of our contribution to bring democracy too. Who knows ? We may well be incubating a future Nelson Mandela for Syria, Sudan, Sri Lanka from in the safety of our land.
The journey to freedom Mandela took throughout his life, is not so different to those who seek asylum. Refugees are exiles and the anguish they have being estranged from their homeland, the fear of being returned, the lack of protection offered. He too was exiled, estranged and hidden from view. I will leave it to one of South Africa’s poet laureate’s to remind us to make a bonfire to the maps that no longer serve us and to give dignity to each person. Without dignity the citizen experience cannot emerge and democracy is compromised.
If destroying all the maps known
would erase all the boundaries
from the face of this earth
I would say let us
make a bonfire
to reclaim and sing
the human person
Refugee is an ominous load
even for a child to carry
for some children
words like home
could not carry any possible meaning
must carry dimensions of brutality and terror
past the most hideous nightmare
anyone could experience or imagine
Empty their young eyes
deprived of a vision of any future
they should have been entitled to
since they did not choose to be born
where and when they were
Empty their young bellies
extended and rounded by malnutrition
and growling like the well-fed dogs of some
with pretensions to concerns about human rights
Can you see them now
stumble from nowhere
the premature daily death of their young dreams
what staggering memories frighten and abort
the hope that should have been
an indelible inscription in their young eyes
I should just borrow
the rememberer’s voice again
while I can and say:
to have a home is not a favour.