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.

First disruptive steps in South Africa.

I first visited South Africa in 1999 when I was working at LIPA and Lee Higgins, our community music tutor at the time, had been involved with various ISME activities and had come back enthused about what he had seen and heard and made a very persuasive case about why LIPA should be out there and how it might be a great source of potential undergraduates for our course in our august institution.

Whilst LIPA released some funding to pay for a market research trip for the two of us, we realised very quickly that asking potential students to pay what in some peoples case would have been the equivalent of a life times earnings to study for a three year degree programme was a form of optimism which bordered on the deluded. Of course, there would have been some students whose parents could have paid – but they almost certainly weren’t going to be from the black families who lived in the townships of Cape Town that we visited. And sure – we could dream about sponsorship of talented black musicians by benign white multinationals all we liked – but the fact is that going on a student recruitment drive to South Africa in the late 1990s was a potentially ridiculous mix of idealism, naïveté and market forces.

What wasn’t ridiculous though was what we did find. We went looking for students and sources of institutional income and instead found people and places and sights and sounds and colours and textures and atmospheres and politics and religions and a place on earth which was simultaneously heaven and hell and which blew apart our preconceptions of notions of community, of music, of Black and White and of good and evil.

Mandela of course infused the air we breathed, the ground we walked on, the talks we talked and the music we listened to. We saw, heard and felt Isicathamiya; we heard Xhosa and Zulu, we wondered why there had never been a civil war in South Africa and we were astounded. In fact, there wasn’t one single day when we weren’t astounded by something or another.

That first visit led to several future visits which became less about attracting the South African Rand to the coffers of LIPA, and more about wider educational and cultural exchange between artists and teachers but the astonishment we felt during that first visit continued to dance around our footsteps as we met many inspirational people whose lives were also infused by Mandela’s presence – or absence, given the amount of time he had been incarcerated on Robben Island.

I don’t really want to say RIP Nelson Mandela as there are millions more saying that right now much more authentically from places that can still astound. His death not only opens up other ways of being astounded by the stories of South Africa: but also how we live our own lives in places which may be thousands of miles from Cape Town but which may as well be on Mandela’s doorstep given the racism, bigotry, fear and ignorance which are still evident everywhere you look and tread.

So I hope his family and people find some peace once he has been laid to rest; but for the rest of us, Insha’Allah, we could do a lot worse than to allow ourselves to be constantly astounded at the world we continue to live in and infuse some of his spirit into disrupting those worlds.