Tuesday, 7 February 2012

CHOOSEDAY.....

CHOOSEday with a difference....and its a little on the serious side but there are lots of photos at the end so bear with me!!!
On 11 February 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison and so began South Africa’s democracy and the birth of the rainbow nation. Although I grew up under the apartheid regime I was not really aware of it.  I grew up in a community where we played with the black children of the farm workers, I went to high school with black children and many of my friends from church were black.  It was almost as if in my little world apartheid did not exist.
Of course I now know that many suffered for their freedom, for the right to vote and for the rights so many others took for granted. I have heard many stories about the hardships suffered, about the lengths people went to, to play a part in the struggle and how far people were willing to go.  But none of these had prepared me for the experience I recently had.
I had the opportunity to visit our Constitutional Court and was so moved by the experience. There is such an amazing feeling in that court room.  I know that it is filled with countless symbolism but it is as if the equality of the black hide and the individuality of the white strips on the hide come to life.  The beaded flag is just amazing and really does serve as a reminder when you sit in the gallery that we are the rainbow nation.  The bricks with their “freedom” gaps echo the concept that one can build the future on the bricks of the past.
Perhaps the most potent symbol is the site itself, the courthouse being built on one of South Africa's most notorious prisons, the Old Fort. Boasting among its former inmates both Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, it was, says Judge Albie Sachs, "a place where everybody locked up everybody; Boers locked up Brits, Brits locked up Boers, Boers locked up blacks".
It was a place famous for its degradation of human beings,­ including the "Tauza dance", in which prisoners were compelled to take part in the nude to expose potential hiding places for contraband.
It is also a place for ghosts, as old jails invariably are. But they seem to have abandoned the site in favour of the one-armed Judge Sachs, one of 11 judges who make up the court and who ­ as a driving force behind the design of the building and now its unofficial historian ­ contributes to the celebratory, almost triumphant atmosphere. While it would be ill-advised to say he haunts the building, the judge himself is a potent symbol of the price paid by many anti-apartheid activists, his missing arm having been blown off by the apartheid-era security forces with a bomb in Mozambique.
As he leads us around the courthouse, Judge Sachs points out the symbolism of its features: the eight-metre-tall, carved front door welcoming visitors; the tower of light above the foyer; the "indaba" motif evocative of the tribal tradition of community meetings under the branches of a prominent tree; the reused bricks from the awaiting-trial block (one can build the future on the bricks of the past); the Nguni cattle hides decorating the bench; the ground-level ribbon window, designed to keep judges and counsel "down to earth"; the ramped and spiralling library that houses what is already the most extensive collection of books on human rights in the African continent; and the abundance of glass as a reminder of the merits of transparency
To me the privilege of the day was when Judge Sachs lead us down the corridor which runs down one of the sides of the courthouse and serves as an art gallery. 
I find myself standing in front of what at first glance seems to be an ordinary wire coat hanger suspended from the ceiling.  From it hangs a dress made of blue plastic, blue plastic shopping bags.  The pretty shoulder straps holding up the blue embroidered bodice, from the soft pleated empire line the skirt flows out light and carefree, swaying almost as if there was a women wearing it………
It is a triptych and it is flanked by two paintings of the same dress. This memorial is in honour of Phila Portia Ndwandwe, a young mother with a baby daughter.
Judge Sachs begins to tell the story Phila.  It is one that can be found in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and perhaps it is the report which uses the best words to tell the tale: "She was held in a small concrete chamber on the edge of the small forest in which she was buried. According to information from those that killed her, she was held naked and interrogated in this chamber, for some time before her death. When we exhumed her, she was on her back in a foetal position, because the grave had not been dug long enough, and had a single bullet wound to the top of her head, indicating that she had been kneeling or squatting when she was killed. Her pelvis was clothed in a plastic packet, fashioned into a pair of panties indicating an attempt to protect her modesty."
Judge Sachs tells us that the men involved have relayed that when they were transporting Phila from the chamber where she was being held to where she would be killed she fashioned from a blue plastic bag a pantie for herself. They did not think to remove it when she was killed and then buried. It was this which was used to identify her remains years later and bring peace to her family. While the security policeman responsible was imparting his story to the TRC a local artist Judith Mason had the radio on in her studio and heard the story of Phila.  She went and bought some plastic bags and created the triptych.
I wish I could put into words the feelings that went through me.  Walking through the prison had been difficult.  It had been horrendous to see the hardship human beings had to endure simply because of their political views and race. But looking up at this soft, twirling, delicate blue dress brought me to my knees and the tears flowed without abandon.  This dress is for her…….the blue plastic panties of shame and humiliation have been transformed into this haunting blue salute of beauty.
A small placard to one side  addressed to Phila, says: "Memorials to your courage are everywhere. They blow about in the streets and drift on the tide and cling to thornbushes. This dress is made of some of them."
In a place of symbolism, that of a plastic bag blowing in the wind, a blue dress and a young mother with a bullet wound to the head is the first among them.
I love my country and am proudly South African. We are the rainbow nation and the blood of people like Phila, Madiba and Judge Sachs runs through our veins. We are strong, we are brave but above all else we are the future and it is up to us to pick up the reigns and show the world that we are one nation!!!
I leave this place with new respect for the human spirit and a renewed vigor in playing my part in the transformation process. 

I CHOOSE to embrace this history of my country because without it we would not be where we are today, I CHOOSE to celebrate the difference and the similarities between the people of my land and I CHOOSE to remember that we are all made in God's image regardless of race and gender!!!

Solitary confinement: No one wanted to stay in cell 25 because a prisoner had been tortured
and beaten to death by the wardens in that cell and it was said that his ghost stayed on.
During the transition when the prison was being converted all the gates were stolen off the
cells except the gate of cell 25!!! 
Cell 13 on the other hand was the one everyone wanted to be in because they could see
a little of the outside world from the top grid!
Two of the remaining staircases of the awaiting trial area....the bricks were used to build the actual constitutional courthouse and the pathway which runs beside it.


The feeding posts! The one closest is the "whites", the the "coloureds" and then the "Africans". They get dirtier and of course the food gets worse with each one!!!
The different diets for the different race groups
The latrines
So this was the dining area.  The prisoners would sit down to their means here and if you look just beyond the board
you will see the latrines.......I would have kept nothing down!!!!
On Sunday's the prisoners would decorate their cells with whatever they could lay their
hands on because the winning cell would provide each of its prisoners with an extra
slice of bread daily!!!
More "art work"...toilet paper and blankets!!!
A silkscreen of Ghandi who was held prisoner here several times
I loved the story behind these sandals. Ghandi made a pair and sent them to General Smuts.......
Years later General Smuts returned them to Ghandi with the note with the words show in the photo!!! Says something
about both men.
In Nelson Mandela's cell.  This is where he waited for the Rivonia trial to start which would
ultimately send him to prison for 27 years.  This is also where he was given his 46664 prison
number which is now world famous!!!
Our tour guide standing at the doors to the constitutional court.  Our constitution is
considered to be one of the most progressive in the world and is built on 27 fundamentals.
These fundamentals are carved into the doors and are in all 11 official languages and even
sign language.  They are very impressive!!!
The bricks from the old awaiting trial prison were kept when it was demolished and the Great
African steps were made from them....when you walk down the steps you are waling between
the past (the prison on your left) and the future (the constitutional court on your right) literally
linking you between the past and the future!!  I think that is very cool!!!
The foyer of the courthouse.  It feels like you are sitting under a tree...notice the bead work!
The logo of the Constitutional court at the entrance to the actual courtroom
The Constitutional court of the Republic of South Africa.....a place every citizen should visit at least once....for the right reason and not cause you ummmm have to be there. There is such an amazing feeling in this courtroom.  I know it is filled with symbolism but it is as if the equality of the black hide and the individuality of the white strips on the hide come to life. The hide is where the judges preside.
6 million beads were used to create this flag which hangs in the most progressive constitutional court in the world.....ours!!!
And here it is....The man who sang and the women who kept silent ....triptych. I found this as I was looking through
some material on the court and although it is long I thought I would add it in:  

The Man who Sang and the Woman who kept Silent (Triptych), 1998



The woman who kept silent and the man who sang (1998) Collection: Art of the Constitutional Court, South Africa. The woman who kept silent and the man who sang (1998). A triptych, the piece was inspired by two stories Mason heard on the radio at the time of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. They told of the execution of two liberation movement cadres by the security police. One was Herold Sefola, who as Mason relates, "asked permission to sing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica before he was shot; the other Phila Ndwande, "who was tortured and kept naked for ten days" and then assassinated in a kneeling position. As Mason recounts, before Ndwande was killed, she "fashioned a pair of panties for herself out of a scrap of blue plastic." 



Mason says that she "has a problem with political art in that I think that artists ought to perhaps pay their taxes or do other things that are more advantageously politically." But, she continues, "I've always had a great regard for heroic art that commemorates grand gestures. In these two stories I came upon, the two gestures were so grand. Two people are allowed - just because of other people's bad behaviour - to exhibit superhumanly beautiful, courageous behaviour, and that's what attracted me there." 



Ndwande's body was found naked in a shallow grave, with the thin piece of plastic still covering her private parts. Mason was so moved by her tragic story that she made a dress of blue plastic bags on which she inscribed a text: 



Sister, a plastic bag may not be the whole armour of God, but you were wrestling with flesh and blood, and against powers, against the rulers of darkness, against spiritual wickedness in sordid places. Your weapons were your silence and a piece of rubbish. Finding that bag and wearing it until you were disinterred is such a frugal, common-sensical, house-wifey thing to do, an ordinary act...At some level you shamed your captors, and they did not compound their abuse by stripping you a second time. Yet they killed you. We only know your story because a sniggering man remembered how brave you were. Memorials to your courage are everywhere; they blow about in the streets and drift on the tide and cling to thorn-bushes. This dress is made from some of them. Hamba kahle. Umkhonto. Mason's dress with text forms the centerpiece of the triptych, flanked on either side by a painting in which the blue dress hangs suspended. In one of them, a predator, clearly representing "the rulers of darkness", and partially held back by a honeycomb-like grid, is seen with a piece of the dress in its mouth. In the other, the predator is also depicted, this time without the piece of dress in its mouth, and again caught in the honeycomb-like grid. But here the work also includes a mug and braziers aglow with flames. 



The woman who kept silent and the man who sang is on loan from the Constitutional Court for Mason's show. It was acquired for the Court's art collection after Justice Albie Sachs, the primary player in building the collection, had visited Mason in Simon's Town in the Cape, where she made the work. What he saw at first was only the dress and the painting in which the predator tears at the dress. These caused him some concern. As he recalls, he told her: "Judith, it is so hard to put this in the Court. It will make people deeply depressed and distressed, and people come to the Court for succour, for a sense of relief, for protection. Isn't it possible to do a variation of this work, utilizing the same theme, but just a little softer, a little more reconciled? And she said okay." 



When Sachs returned to see Mason a few weeks later, she had completed the painting with the glowing braziers. What Sachs saw, as he describes it, was "a warm glow, the sense of reconciliation, of coming to terms with the terrible pain of the past. The predator trapped in the fence, keeping it at bay, the dress soaring." But, says Sachs, it was "too soft. . .too kind. . .too reconciled." What Mason and Sachs agreed upon was to combine the dress and the two paintings, so that it formed a composite work. "They belonged together," says Sachs. "There is a story in the visual objects themselves, in the way she produced them." 



Sachs considers The woman who kept silent and the man who sang to be "one of the great pieces of art in the world of the late 20th century, that emerged out of our artistic imagination, our social experience, our sensibility.


Words fail me.....
Its for her........
The outside of the courthouse
I know it is heavy for a Tuesday but it has been on my heart to share Phila's story for awhile now.....so my friends on this CHOOSEday, choose to be thankful, choose to love those who hurt you, choose to forgive and above all else choose to let God work in your life.......

4 comments:

Emily w/Amazing Grapes said...

That's an amazing story and those pictures are so telling. Having worked in a prison for 6+ years, I definitely know the little tales and where some cells were seen as worse.

Eating so close to a toilet and I'm sure where many were going, isn't something that's easy, I have no doubt of that.
So glad you were able to get the tour. Its so intriguing when you're able to really see the history behind everything.

You look great in that picture, by the way. :)
Emily at Amazing Grapes

Lisa @ honibun@blogspot said...

I had forgotten that you worked in a prison....it must be a very difficult job.

I already have bathroom/hygiene issues so this would totally have freaked me out!!!!!

It was really eye opening and made me realise how important it is to know where you have come from in order to know where you are going. I love my country and despite the fact that we have had a difficult past we are working on a wonderful future.

Thanks for the compliment!!!

Hayley said...

Oh wow..this gave me goosebumps. I am dying to go there...i think to go there soon.

Thanks for this.

Lisa @ honibun@blogspot said...

Hi Hayley, I hope you have the opportunity to visit. It really is a special place and puts things into a bit more perspective. As a fellow South African I am sure you will appreciate it just as much as I did.

Thanks for the comment.