Searching for Meaning in South Africa
The first Satyagraha Tour of South Africa was, perhaps, wrongly billed. It was not so much a “pursuit of Truth” as it was a search for meaning and purpose in life. For instance, how was it that from this boiling cauldron of hate and prejudice two historic icons – Mohandas K. Gandhi and Nelson “Madiba” Mandela – emerged to show the world the path of nonviolence and forgiveness, while many millions silently suffer the ignominy. Ultimately, of course, what one gets out of a trip depends on ones reason for making the journey. A tourist will just see the sights while a searcher with an open mind and eyes will learn and grow.
The trip reminded me of the prophetic words uttered by Gandhi weeks before his assassination in response to a journalist who asked: What will happen to your legacy after your death? Gandhi replied: “They (the people of India) will follow me in life, worship me in death but not make my cause their cause.” The universality of this poignant statement cannot be ignored. Any one of the hundreds of prophets who are worshiped today could have uttered these words.
There is no escaping the fact that both Gandhi and Mandela were regular people like you and me but at a crucial point in life they decided there has to be a different way to counter hate, prejudice, and violence. Some may say it was far too ambitious to claim that in one short visit we could find the answers to this important question. Yet it is also true that Truth can reveal itself in a flash of a moment, if one’s mind is open and receptive.
One reality that emerged for me during this trip was that it is a rare individual who, when faced with adversity, has the courage to make a bold decision even if the consequences of that decision can be life threatening.
If I am to pick the highlight of the tour it would be the visit to Spioenkop, the battlefield where the Boers (Afrikaner of Dutch descent) and the British fought the famous Boer War that lasted a little over three years. Greg Garson, our intrepid tour guide was also a remarkable historian. He brought the battle to life while standing on the crest of a mountain and looking over the field that undulated like a tumultuous sea. I could feel the bullets whizzing by and the canons booming. Although I had read about the yeoman service rendered by the Indian volunteers led by Grandfather I had no idea how difficult their task was.
Walking up to the crest of the mountain where the memorial to the war dead is erected was literally exhausting. To think that a four-man crew of stretcher-bearers carried hundreds of injured up and down these mountains for almost 20 miles each trip to the nearest field hospital was mind-blowing. They had to dodge bullets and canon fire.
Standing among the tombstones of the war dead I could sense the mental and physical anguish that Grandfather experienced at man’s inhumanity to man. Violence generally brings out the worse in man and extreme violence totally dehumanizes any individual. Grandfather saw this carnage and realized mankind must change. What must be even more galling for Grandfather, according to Greg, was the order to dump the dead and save the injured. Consequently, if a soldier died while being carried to the field hospital the volunteers were ordered to dump the body and return to pick up another injured. Later the dead were buried in mass graves. Listening to Greg’s so intricately woven stories gave me the goose-bumps. This visit to Spioenkop made me realize the brutality and inhumanity of war which repelled Grandfather’s sensitivities. It was, arguably, the beginning of the change in his thinking.
We visited many wonderful sites like the imaginative monument built at the spot where Madiba was arrested in 1964 which is not far from Spioenkop, we visited Madiba’s home in Soweto, very unpretentious and simple. Not many are aware that two African Nobel Laureates lived on the same street just a few hundred yards from each other – Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We visited the Nelson Mandela Foundation Trust and the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, the Apartheid Museum and the Hector Pieterson Museum dedicated to the lives of the 160 Soweto school children who were mowed down by the apartheid police. These visits were as educative as they were emotionally draining.
Of course we visited Gandhi’s Phoenix Settlement outside Durban, my birthplace, and the very first Institution in the world for nonviolent living and learning. For me this visit was nostalgic. Memories of 23 years of life since birth came like a tidal wave. We went to the Court where Gandhi practiced and was convicted which is now a museum; the railway station where he boarded the train he was removed from, the event that transformed a man into a Mahatma. We boarded the same train which was a big mistake. Train services for passengers in recent times have been given the short shrift so that what could have been a 90 minute car ride to Pietermaritzburg turned out to be a five and a half hour train ride that was nerve-wracking.
We were at the historic railway station to participate in the 121st anniversary of the infamous incident that transformed Grandfather’s life. We went to Robben Island, the prison that held Mandela for 18 years and to the Central Prison in Johannesburg where many protesters were incarcerated, including Grandfather, his sons Harilal and my father Manilal. Again, it was, if anything, a monument to man’s inhumanity to man.
The prisoners were served food in an open court yard and forced to sit within a few feet of open latrines where prisoners defecated while others ate. I recalled my father’s experience when all new comers were forced to strip naked in the courtyard while the police probed the prisoner’s anal cavity for tobacco, cigarettes and marijuana. Women were not spared either. They had to undergo a public search of their anal and vaginal cavities. This was first revealed by my father and later picked up by the magazine Drum. An African reporter was sent into prison while a cameraman went up to the terrace of a tall adjoining building and with the aid of a telephoto lens captured scenes of this indecency and appalling disregard of human rights.
To sum it all up, the tour was tension free and enjoyable because we mixed these serious visits with touristy visits to Table Mountain, Cape of Good Hope, Penguin Island, and many wonderful NGO programs for the poor and destitute. To name and describe all of them would result in several more pages. Perhaps a follow-up may result.