The plurality of reactions to the recent fire in Parliament in Cape Town reminded me of a story I came across in one of my spiritual daily devotions.
The story is set during the height of the Cold War between the capitalist West and the communist East. In Germany, this culminated in two Germanys, separated by a barrier known as the Berlin Wall.
On the west side of the Berlin Wall was capitalist West Germany, known as the Federal Republic of Germany. In the east was the communist East Germany, known as the German Democratic Republic.
The Berlin Wall had soldiers guarding it on both sides. Their role included restricting human movement either way.
One day, so the story is told, the East German guards took a truckload of garbage and dumped it on the western side. You will agree with me that the natural reaction would have been for the western side to retaliate to this extreme provocation in equal measure.
The response, however, was extraordinary. The West German guards collected a truckload of food items East Germany was known to desperately need, including tinned food, bread and milk. They dumped this on the eastern side with a note that said: “Each can only give what they have.”
The lesson drawn from this by the pastor who told the story was that, when our minds are filled with toxic stuff, our interaction with the world is similarly toxic. When we have renewed and rid our minds of toxicity such as unhealed past hurts, resentment and hatred, we relate to others empathically and with thoughtfulness.
While many were distraught over the fact that a national asset – that is, Parliament – had been mindlessly destroyed with the possible risk of losing other assets it housed, such as the art, records and people’s personal items left in offices, others rejoiced very publicly.
Those rejoicing seemed unconcerned about the pain of those whose personal items were at the risk of being destroyed, or the irreplaceable artworks, which include tapestry by rural women in the Eastern Cape, or the financial cost of it all. As I reflected on this, it dawned on me that many of our people were hurting and the foremost thought when misfortune happens is the hope that those they consider responsible for their misery will suffer.
There is another way of responding to misery, though. We may not be emotionally mature enough to give something of value to those who throw rubbish at us. However, we could learn from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who passed away at age 90 on the Day of Goodwill. By his own account, the Arch found it impossible to remain silent whenever he experienced or witnessed injustice.Throughout his life, Tutu used the privilege he enjoyed as an educated priest to speak truth to power in the face of injustice, having started with crusading against apartheid and related injustices.
He later included gender justice and all dimensions of justice he saw as essential for peace and related social cohesion. But Tutu spoke out in a manner that eschewed spewing bile. He avoided denigrating those he perceived as wrongdoers.
He only called out what he believed was their wrongfulness, usually unjust conduct, while recognising their humanity as of equal value as everyone else’s. This was a reflection of his belief in the philosophy of ubuntu.
At the core of ubuntu is shared humanity anchored in the equal worth of all human beings.
In the Constitutional Court 1995 landmark case of S v Makwanyane and Another, which abolished the death penalty, Justice Tholakele Madala said: “There is a need for understanding but not vengeance, and for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not victimisation.”
Tutu emphasised the dimension of ubuntu that is about the equal worth of all beings and respect for the environment. His was often a lone voice among people of his calibre as he spoke on the uncomfortable truths such as corruption and injustices in Palestine, Zimbabwe and other parts of the world, and the question of homophobia.
On homophobia, Tutu must have ruffled the feathers of many of his fellow men of the cloth when he said that, if he got to heaven and found a homophobic God, he would rather “go to the other place”.
To me this reflects a person at peace with himself, always dishing out empathy as a fruit of that peace, like those guards in West Germany. On the specific issue of peace, Tutu said: “If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”
Questions have been raised regarding what happens after the deaths of Tutu and his contemporaries who collectively delivered political freedom, regardless of its imperfections.
What do we do as a nation? Does anger and celebration of the destruction move the needle on the remaining freedom challenges such as social justice in the economy? While I understand that people can only give what they have in their headspace, we need to start thinking about how we move the needle constructively.
How do we not create new victims and avoid being the unhealed victims that became victims, as Adolf Hitler did?You must agree with me that the palpable anger engulfing our nation is not good for the vessels who hold it. They face an immediate risk to their mental health.
The volatility, uncertainty, complexities and ambiguity brought by Covid-19 have exacerbated the constant feelings of heightened alertness and related stress for many. There is also a growing body of science that suggests that permanent anger, resentment and the constant heightened alertness this entails, also undermines physiological health.
Extreme anger is definitely a danger to people and things against which it is occasionally released, like raging floods of water from a dam filled beyond capacity with no sluice for strategic easing of the pressure.
What should we do about the anger within us? For example, should those with peace in their hearts act as the West German guards in the face of extremes by those burning with anger?
Maybe not. That too could be perceived as an insult by the angry lot, which could exacerbate the situation. Neuropsychology tells us that we see everything through a lens tainted by the world already in our headspace.
To angry people, every word that disapproves of their actions or contradicts their beliefs tends to be seen as an attack or affront.Something has to give. I suggest we take deliberate action to reclaim the process of healing the divisions of the past we committed ourselves to when adopting the Constitution 25 years ago.
This would mean taking the baton from and completing the journey that was traversed by Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, among other things.
How about a cohort of social leaders getting together to champion and curate this healing process? The cohort could be called the people’s commission on national healing.
Through a combination of interdisciplinary expertise and public consultations – including public hearings – this cohort could assess what pains our nation and curate a multipronged healing process.
Can we afford to let the anger within us keep boiling?
Madonsela occupies the law trust chair in social justice at Stellenbosch University and is the founder of the Thuma Foundation