Tripping off the tongue: truth, reconciliation and disruptive playground politics.

My second visit to Cape Town in 2002 was the time I understood how teachers can hunt in packs and why we can never do everything on our own and have to rely, as much as we might not like it, on the ineffable.

Mandela’s colleagues had led us to schools in some of the Western Cape townships for a week and as the week wore on, my colleagues and I became increasingly inebriated with the achievements and challenges that Mandela’s colleagues were demonstrating.

One inebriation led to another and before we knew it we were walking around a Stellenbosch vineyard, knocking back the free tasters, plying ourselves with goats cheese, biscuits and fruit and one slip of a post-it note led to another and before you knew it, bang! The atmosphere was shattered, distrust washed over the group and we UK colleagues looked at each other: embarrassments were waved away, giggles were hidden, smirks stifled and post-it notes and pens hurriedly hidden in handbags. The pack was out in force and it’s ability to join forces and stand shoulder to shoulder against outsiders summonsed up. The old empire is never far away when Brits are abroad.

Mandela’s colleagues managed to patch the group back together again, well versed as they were in truth and reconciliation but the schism in our group never healed, albeit that disruption happening over 10 years ago.

If it’s hard to heal a small group of teachers out on a weekly field trip, how on earth do you go about healing a nation?

Some time later that week we visited a disability centre where disabled people were being trained in new employment related skills and tentatively being prepared for the workplace. We asked them how this was possible in the country at this time.

Jimi, one of Mandela’s colleagues pointed to a large map of South Africa hanging on the wall. There were three pieces of thin plastic tubing coloured red, blue and white, fixed into the map. The red tubing spanned the length of the country and, explained Jimi, represented the blood of the people required to make the changes necessary; the blue tubing started mid- country and ended in the Pacific Ocean and represented the water and resources required to make the changes necessary; the white tubing started mid-country and went northward up to the limits of the map, disrupting the frame in the process. This, explained Jimi, represented God as there was no way human beings were capable of making the changes necessary on their own. There was a need for something else in this process, something which couldn’t be described and passed by all of our understanding.

We all looked at each other surreptitiously not quite knowing where else to look or what else to say, the earlier events of the week still fresh in our minds. We may have shared a common blood between us, we certainly had no shortage of resources to draw on but we were distinctly impoverished when it came to being able to draw on an ineffable source of power that we could all confidently identify and draw on. We were in fact, distinctly alone in our school trip.

Perhaps the first step in our truth and reconciliation process would have been to recognise that it was loneliness we shared, not the false gang mentality of the pack that the earlier inebriation had succeeded in unmasking.

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