Writing demands an audience
The Light that Destroys the Darkness
"The Light that Destroys the Darkness: How Jesus destroys Fear and bestows Freedom, the power and grace of faith in southern Africa"
How churches (and all faith groups) find their true power when repression is at its worst; and how we, as Christians, more fully experience God and Jesus in our lives - Charlene Smith, St. Andrew's Church, Wellesley, March 10, 2019 - 9am.
Wellesley Writers Salons
Dates for Wellesley Writers Salon (inbox me for more details)
$36 per Salon
"The Power to Command Frequently Causes Failure to Think"
Sunday, January 27, 2019
2 PM, Wakelin Room, Wellesley Free Library, 530 Washington Street, Wellesley, Massachusetts.
"The power to command frequently causes failure to think," writes Barbara Tuchman in
The March of Folly. Charlene Smith, authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela and a political journalist who has covered politics and economics on four continents, will discuss how any sort of power, whether in politics, at work, or even within a family can cause us to become obstinate bullies who take no counsel and cause misery.
Jointly sponsored by the Wellesley Council on Aging and the Wellesley Free Library.
Making Friends of Your Enemies: The Hero's Journey, the task of the ordinary
Talk by Charlene Smith to St. Andrews & The Village Church, Wellesley, MA © 9 October 2016
Two days ago, it was the 87th birthday of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who is fond of a Vietnam-era cartoon that depicts God looking down and saying, "if you don't all stop it I'm going to come down and thump you."
I'm sure God is looking down on America right now and thinking the same.
In recent times, I hear scripture readings in church and I think, how did they know? These messages across the millennia feel like news broadcasts. As recent examples, 17th Sunday after Pentecost, we heard from Proverbs: "Wisdom cries out in the street …How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will … fools hate knowledge? … I will mock when panic strikes you … like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind." 1:20-33.
We heard from James 3: "The tongue is a fire… no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison," gosh, I thought, is that talking about Twitter, Facebook, or me?
God is in daily conversation with each of us, we don't hear because we're not paying attention. We've also stopped believing in the power of goodness. We no longer believe in us, and to not believe in you is to doubt God, because we are the children of God.
The greatest courage is often exhibited by unexpected people, and betrayals and cowardice are often seen in those we expect to rise to a challenge. Heroism is the prize of the unlikely.
In writing classes, we talk of the Hero's Journey. The hero's journey, is found in all storytelling whether Homer's Odyssey,Jesus of Galilee, or the latest Jodi Picoult.
I am going to use it today to sketch the times we live in, with ideas on how to rebuild our country, its people, and ourselves.
Heroism reveals the best of humanity. A hero is often someone who surprises us by performing an act that lifts our spirits, gives us energy, hope, and a sense of direction.
Within each of us lies a hero waiting for his or her day.
I think of Susan B. Anthony and her unlikely friendship with Frederick Douglass. They never accepted the words, "this is the way things are, accept it," or that dreadful New England saying, "it is what it is." They both endured ridicule and arrest to become among the greatest Americans.
Charles Dickens wrote from lived experience in Oliver Twist, and Nelson Mandela and the Arch as we call Desmond+ were all people who, when they were born, nothing much was expected of them, yet they defied the mantle history and class cast upon them. They did the extra needed to turn their ordinary lives into extraordinary.
I have four Nobel Peace Prize Winners as friends; one is 97-year-old Dr. Bernard Lown, a Boston cardiologist who formed International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. It began as a small group of doctors meeting in the Lown living room in Chestnut Hill. He and his friends were wild dreamers, the world had to be changed from its suicidal course and over coffee and cookies they began doing just that.
Later at a conference in the Soviet Union, Bernard Lown made friends with Gorbachev's cardiologist. Their efforts saw leaders who hated each other – Reagan and Gorbachev - meet. Over time jubilant Berliners destroyed the low wall – made large in our imaginations - that had long divided them.
We may feel the walls between us in the United States are growing higher, and that a No Person's Land is emerging between us. We act as though the Stasi is on our tail, not speaking our truth, fearful of repercussion, secretly hating some of our fellow citizens, smiling to their faces and as they turn we malign them, disrespect them.
The walls are in our mind; fear is our choice.
Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded us in 1932 that, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
A divided people are a lost people. Lincoln lifted from Jesus' preaching in Matthew 12:25 when he told the folk of Springfield, Illinois on June 16, 1858 that: "a house divided against itself cannot stand." In South Africa, we learned that division among a people strengthens the hands of demagogues. If you do not speak your truth, then lies and liars rule. If you and those around you do not speak your truth - you do not know who to trust or what lies hide behind the eyes of the smiling.
Hearing the truth is not comfortable, it's not meant to be, they are the words that upset the dinner party, the irritant that breaks into our soul, the accusation that sears our heart and causes change. When you turn from truth-telling you walk into the arms of the dishonest.
The heroes of history showed exceptional sensitivity to the plight of ordinary people, to the forgotten, the unseen, the invisible, and the scorned. The great are less interested in the self; than love of the other.
You are great when you turn your ear to the vulnerable, feel their plea within your heart and act to make a difference, even as you receive censure or scorn.
You may risk your own status – which at the time you imagine to be greater than it is – but without the courage to take a risk in defense of the other we are nothing and no one.
Let's go to literature and see how it echoes life. The Hero's Journey begins in the ordinary world; let's take Mohandas Gandhi, who studied law in England and as a rather snooty, upper class Hindi, travelled to South Africa, where we humiliated him so thoroughly, that this prissy young barrister changed. He not only contested white racism; he removed one of the pillars holding up the British Empire. India.
He turned the harm he experienced into an instrument of change.
Greatness does not occur when we set small steps, it happens when we set ridiculous goals and never accept no as an answer. The desire for change happens not only in us, it is within others, our action causes others to move.
Nelson Mandela, the first black lawyer in South Africa felt similar anger after courteously helping direct a woman struggling to parallel park. Once she parked, the white woman got out of her car and walked past him saying, "if you want sixpence for that, forget it." She did not see his act of grace; she saw a stranger she considered inferior. It mobilized Nelson Mandela to form the armed wing of the African National Congress and to start bombing the white regime; talk, he believed had no effect on a people who lacked the wisdom to listen. I wonder what is in the hearts of children we have removed from their parents?
And so, we see Gandhi and Mandela easily slip into the second level of the Hero's Journey, a call to adventure where, "an offence against the natural order of things must be set right."
Bigotry is not normal; man is a social being. It is in the animal world that predators divide a herd to destroy it. A wise group stays together and with unity of intent can destroy a predator, I've witnessed this in the wild in Africa. I experienced it while living under apartheid; those who worked to destroy social injustice were few; yet we defeated the racist rulers of the most powerful country on the African continent.
Unity of purpose makes us powerful. Historian Barbara Tuchman in her valuable book, The March of Folly writes of the importance of: "keep[ing] mind and judgement open and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness."
Darren McGarvey in Poverty Safari,which recently won the Orwell prize, notes: "We must resist the temptation to project all blame for our personal and political circumstances onto bogey men and pantomime villains… There is no virtue in shooting down other people's bad ideas unless we occasionally turn the guns on our own… The new frontier for individuals and movements who want to radically change society is to first recognize the need for radical change within ourselves."
In South Africa, we found that there can be no forgiveness without repentance and radical transformation in ourselves and in our communities. Real change begins within us.
We do not have to agree with others, but we do need frank discussions in which differences are openly aired and you listen as respectfully as you'd like to be heard.
If you lead a group, be the last to speak, be consultative, hear other views before airing yours.
Points three and four of the Hero's Journey are the Reluctant Hero and the Mentor.
Nelson Mandela experienced angry attacks from other ANC leaders when he came out of prison and began negotiations with the white regime that for 50 years had murdered, tortured, detained without trial, harassed, intimidated and attempted to destroy the spirit of black people. At one aggressive meeting – because SA's lack New England restraint about expressing themselves – Mandela listened as everyone argued that it was a betrayal to negotiate with the enemy, finally he asked, "What do we have to lose?"
They had no answer. We had everything to gain. We had already lost so much.
And this is where we come to the Fifth Stage of the Hero's Journey: Crossing the Threshold. Sometimes it is good to be ashamed of your country, because it is only when the world looks at you and spits, that you begin honest personal and collective examination and ask, what role did I play in things getting so bad? What do I need to do to save my country and protect my people?
Mandela said of prison – and we can apply it to any area of life: "Our survival depended on understanding what the authorities were attempting to do to break us, and sharing that understanding with each other… We … gained strength from each other. Whatever we knew… we shared and by sharing we multiplied whatever courage we had."
In my view, a nation where individualism is prized is likely to become a country of self-serving egotists. The most successful Asian, African and Nordic countries put communal interests first: none fear getting ill or growing old, pregnant women are revered, childcare is free or affordable. In South Africa, we say - ubuntu: a person is a person because of other people. During the anti-apartheid struggle we would say, an injury to one is an injury to all.
Some months back, the world was riveted by the rescue of a Thai soccer team and their coach, we were inspired by the efforts of the Thai, the calmness of the coach and the boys. We experienced the African belief, that every child is my child. We were united in a commonality of hope, a shared love of children, and it felt wonderful.
No solo achievement ever feels as rewarding as something you do to benefit another.
We love our partners most when we work a path through pain with them. We love our country most when it is wounded and we seek ways to heal it.
Which brings us to the sixth step of the Hero's Journey, Tests, allies and enemies.We all want to be loved or at least liked. This, however, is not a luxury that accompanies the honest or the courageous. Achieving great goals means you're going to have to overturn a few tables, as Jesus did. None of the Pharisees applauded him after and said, "gosh thanks, our temple really needed a makeover and your destruction has forced us out of our procrastination." He was considered dangerous, a threat, a crazed gang leader.
Jesus chose as close friends a sexworker, fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot, and a thief. I wonder how many of us have friends among the humble and proudly invite them to dine with us? Jesus taught us that if you attend to the needs of the humble, and the discarded, they will make you great.
Yet, one in five children go to bed hungry in America, we have the worst maternal and infant mortality rates in the developed world, the world's highest rate of incarceration, we pay 40% more for prescription drugs than any other nation on earth, and consume 99% of the world's opioids, which kill 150 Americans a day.
Wages have remained stagnant since the 1970s. Our education system along with our bridges, roads, hospitals, trains and subways is collapsing, and yet we say we are the greatest country in the world. The saying, the emperor has no clothes comes to mind.
This brings us to the seventh stage of the Hero's Journey, the Approach to the Inmost Cave. In the Arthurian stories the Inmost Cave is the Chapel Perilous, where the seeker may find the Grail. The inmost cave is our mind and the truths we fear confronting. A friend, Tokyo Sexwale, who spent years on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela said, "There are things you have to learn as a prisoner. First there are the walls. You can see the walls and forever be a prisoner, or you can break through and have the whole world before you in your mind. The greatest challenge is yourself. The enemy within. You have to work with and change yourself."
Mandela said the enemy within makes you doubt your efforts to create change. Until we confront that which needs transformation, we remain trapped, hostages to our own inaction. Freedom comes through action, through the courage to do extra.
The 8thstage of the Hero's Journey is The Ordeal.For Dr. Lown, Boston's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, he was offered a job at Harvard during the McCarthy era. Harvard questioned him about the political affiliations of some of his friends. He refused to comment. Dr. Lown is a Lithuanian Jew, he knew the Gestapo even when they dressed in suits and called themselves American. He did not get the job.
Dr. Lown and his wife never betrayed their principles during a shameful time in American history. Not long after he invented the cardiac defibrillator and cardioverter, medical miracles that save millions of lives. When he started meetings in his home with other doctors about the threat of nuclear war, many considered them crazy. But those efforts from his living room carved a path to the Nobel Peace Prize and the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
John F. Kennedy said, "one person can make a difference and everyone should try."
Today there is a chair at Harvard in Dr. Lown's name.
Which brings us to the Reward in the Hero's Journey:for most of us, our reward is the pleasure we bestow to others. The final three stages of the Hero's Journey are The Road Back, Resurrection, and Return with the Elixir.
A quest never leaves us untouched nor unchanged, in Christ's instance, God realized that it was not enough for Christ to be a hippie wandering around with disciples, with gimmicks like walking on water and feeding thousands with just a few loaves and fish. Great stories but hardly a Hollywood blockbuster. In writing classes, we teach students that there must be a crisis that leads to a breakthrough in thinking, an epiphany.
And so, God allowed his son to be tortured and executed. This Easter I had an epiphany when in church we acted out the Passion of Christ. The congregation had to speak the words of the crowd like, "crucify him," I could not call for anyone to be harmed, even if acting.
Irealized how frightened Jesus was. In the Bible, we read, "He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated" in the Garden of Gethsemane.
He threw himself on the ground and prayed that the hour might pass. He said, "Father, for you all things are possible, remove this cup from me…"
It's the question we all ask when we experience pain: God take it away.
Jesus had to suffer as if he was human to understand what we as humans experience when we suffer. He could not relate to us if he was a god and was spared pain. He endured it to be one with us.
There is an amazing reading in Philippians 2:5-11, "Christ Jesus… did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, [he] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness."
This is why I choose to be a Christian; if Jesus situates himself among those most scorned, who am I to believe I cannot? Or I will not?
It is a phenomenal lesson.
Jesus invites us to be participants on the Hero's Journey,or as Desmond Tutu often says, "God didn't create you to just be ordinary."
In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness Tutu wrote: "It is crucial that we keep remembering that negotiations, peace talks, forgiveness, and reconciliation happen most frequently not between friends, [nor] …those who like one another. They happen because people … detest one another. Enemies are potential allies, friends, colleagues and collaborators."
John McCain on his death bed dictated: "We are citizens of … a nation of ideals... We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world… We weaken our greatness when we confuse patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred … in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down; when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been." I cannot end with greater truths.
Early in 2018, Liz Magill took an online course with me to turn her thesis into a book. This is not easy because a thesis is written in academic jargon. A book for the commercial market needs to be written in an enjoyable reading style.
I came up with a working title: Five Loaves, Two Fishes, Twelve Volunteers - the book is about food kitchens and feeding programs run by churches.
By the end of the course we had three chapters ready for submission to a publisher or agent.
At no extra charge I helped Liz with a query letter and book proposal to take to a publishing conference to help her to pitch to agents and publishers.
She succeeded! This is her signing a book contact with Upper Room Books, they loved the title and are keeping it.
Her book is due for publication in March, 2020.
If you are interested in a course, writing coaching or for me to ghost write your book, please contact me using the contact form on this site.
I'm the sort of immigrant Donald Trump finds acceptable, blonde, attractive, accomplished, and with a British accent.
On the last point, come to think of it, most Americans would let me in.
This is where it gets difficult; I am South African-born. I've lived under neo-Nazis. Some apartheid presidents were jailed during the Second World War for active Nazi support, and the biggest spy ring ever uncovered in the U.S. was led by a South African Nazi. My parents were racist, and my father, a bully. I was a kind child and when about eight-years-old, my siblings and I were playing in a park. I saw three black children holding the diamond links of the fence, watching us.
"Come and play with us," I said.
"Our mother said we can't," the boy closest in age to me said.
"Oh come, it will be fine," I urged, and they, tempted by the colorful merry-go-round, the swings and slides, ran into the park. There we played until we heard sirens and saw police vehicles skid to a stop outside the park. Something terrible must have happened. We stood transfixed. The police ran toward us. We were confused, we hadn't seen any baddies.
They grabbed the three black children, who screamed and cried, as they were hauled off to police vans. A black woman, a maid, came out of one of the houses and fell to her knees pleading with the police officers who ignored her.
She wailed as the police vehicles sped off.
I had done this. I brought harm to this mother and my friends. Even now I feel shame.
Children are wise, they understand injustice, and no matter what their parents say or do, they know.
I was a clever child who won academic and good fellowship awards at school, I was never promiscuous, nor used drugs or alcohol, but arguments at home intensified. I felt apartheid was unjust. At the age of sixteen, a month after I graduated high school, I was labelled a 'traitor' by my parents, and a 'kaffir boetie' (the equivalent of 'nigger lover') and banished from home. I had no money and scant education but a journalism cadet program at the largest newspaper group accepted this shy child. I became the youngest cadet reporter ever and the first woman crime reporter in South African journalism. It was 1976 and black students protested inferior education. I saw the first dead bodies of my life as children my age and younger were gunned down by police. More than 600 died and that radicalized me. Five years later I was active in the underground of the African National Congress, the outlawed liberation group that Mandela belonged to.
There were three levels of commitment – were you prepared to be arrested?
To prepare we read St. Augustine's Just War theory. I became a disciple of Gandhi and satyagraha, non-violent resistance. He counselled that we should not respond to haters in like manner – or as Michelle Obama put it, "when they go low, we go high." Gandhi also wrote in his 1928 book, Satyagraha in South Africa, "you shall not bend your knee before an oppressor." Stand tall, be dignified, never cower.
The next decision was, if I get arrested and am interrogated and tortured, will I speak, or remain silent, or give them a little but not that which is most important? Do I shame the oppressor by carrying the harm in my own body, as Gandhi suggested? The apartheid government loved torture as much as Trump.
The last personal assessment was, am I prepared to die? Nelson Mandela said in his statement from the dock:
We, of the ANC, always stood for a non-racial democracy. We shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart …Fifty years of non-violence brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights … Our complaint is not that we are poor by comparison with people in other countries, but that we are poor by comparison with white people in our own country. … I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
He was influenced by "Letter to a German Friend, July 1943," in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, by Albert Camus, which was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1963. (I have the copy Mandela used.) These were letters the French Resistance dropped over German lines. Camus ends with words we need to start with:
This country is worthy of the difficult and demanding love that is mine. And I believe she is decidedly worth fighting for since she is worthy of a higher love… Your nation … received… only the love it deserved, which was blind. A nation is not justified by such love. That will be your undoing. And you who were already conquered in your greatest victories, what will you be in the approaching defeat?
The U.S.A. is not worthy of blind love. I love it with my eyes open. I hear the fear of the white working class who have lost work, forfeited homes, status, and struggle to pay excessive interest rates on student loans. Hate is a product of fear. Always.
I am disturbed by the militarization of the police. The notion of service is being surrendered to police force, and this enables the shooting of too many black men.
I didn't want my children to live in a society that discriminated against anyone for any reason. I didn't want them to ask when they grew up, "what did you do mommy?" And to have no answer.
My road led to Nelson Mandela.
We left South Africa for a time because my American husband feared that he would be deported and I would be jailed. In 1989, I returned after the assassination of a close friend. Four months later, Archbishop Desmond Tutu asked if I would begin the first investigations into government death squads. God blessed us, because within two weeks a death squad assassin escaped the noose in Pretoria by giving us an affidavit of some of his crimes. Liberal lawyers brought a stay of execution. It was my task to prove or disprove his claims before making them public. We did not know if this was security police disinformation. It included claims of police officials torturing a man then putting him on a spit to burn to death, while they barbecued nearby. They locked the doors of minivans with students inside and firebombed them. They used waterboarding, the helicopter, electric shock torture – all devices that the U.S.A. employs and we've mostly turned our faces because it was to others. It never could happen to us. Could it?
Pastor Niemoller, interned at Auschwitz wrote:
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."
On February 10, 1990, I visited a friend recovering from pneumonia, Cyril Ramaphosa, now deputy president of South Africa. He was reading Barbara Tuchman's, The March of Folly, and said, "every politician must read this." In it, Barbara Tuchman writes:
Folly is a child of power… The overall responsibility of power is to …keep mind and judgement open and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness. If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is a summit in the art of government.
On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela, aged 71, walked free. Cyril held the microphone for him at his first public address in Cape Town. Two days later I was the second journalist to interview him in Soweto. He had such grace. Before I began he said, "Ms. Smith, I have read your works, I want to know about you." He quoted verbatim things I'd written years before, and asked me to describe persons or events.
Nelson Mandela was always interested. He cared. If he met you once, he would remind you, when next you met, of what you discussed six months or a year before.
The world loved Nelson Mandela because he loved us, all of us. He came out of prison and told South Africa's deeply divided people to 'make friends of your enemies' – when at that time there were government death squads, the right-wing were planting bombs at taxi ranks, and internecine violence saw hundreds of people die a week.
His approach caused anger among some ANC leaders. He listened to them patiently, and then asked, "What will it cost to negotiate?" They had no answer. We had lost so much peace was the most radical action of all.
No one was invisible to him. Our Madiba would arrive at an event and first greet the cooks, the cleaners, the security detail, the waiters; the rich and famous could wait. Everyone was important to him. Everyone is important.
He went to the white-only homeland of Orania to visit Betsy Verwoerd, the widow of the architect of apartheid and the man that sought Mandela's execution. When they emerged, his hand gently on her old shoulder, she looked at him with pleasure. It flabbergasted a nation of haters.
If a woman or child was gravely harmed, he would travel across the country to comfort them. He was our president, our best friend and trusted ally, regardless of our political persuasion. We called him Tata (father).
He wasn't perfect, he made mistakes, but he would admit when he was wrong, and change course. He was as flawed as we, he simply tried harder to be better.
I knew Nelson Mandela for 23 years. In July 2013, my father died and I did not mourn.
In 2015 I wrote a 'letter' ending with these words:
"I kept thinking about my absence of feeling. A few months after your death, Mandela died and I mourned deeply. I still do. At Christmas 2013, I thought of how sad your life was, how narrow, and how blessed I am to love many, and be loved by many. Sorrow for your sad life is what I now have, and so dad, my father, the architect of the person I am today, I want to thank you. I hope you have at last found peace."
In America today, we fear. People are angry. Friendships have splintered. People whisper behind closed doors. They have panic attacks or insomnia. As apartheid became more vicious I developed a stress-related heart condition that saw me in the I.C.U. a few times a year. Since moving to the U.S.A. I have never been hospitalized. Don't give bullies power over your mind and body.
I believe Mandela might say, "You know American people are very clever, they have achieved much. Along the way, they became lost, they were so busy telling others what to do that they ignored the cries of those at home. We are not ungrateful for their meddling, because sanctions – first called for by Martin Luther King in 1961 and finally defying a presidential veto from President Ronald Reagan in 1986 – saw me walk free less than four years later. As my good friend, the Archbishop Tutu might say, 'There is a time for everything, this is America's time, to build, to heal, to mend, to speak, to heal.'"
The word courage comes from the French word, coeur, it means heart. Courage comes from the heart. It is an act of love.
Open eyes are the fuel Lady Liberty needs. Pain leads to new awakenings, a fresh appreciation of what we are and all we can be. Listen with an open mind. Courage demands we make friends of our enemies and denounce persecutors. And always, as Mandela did, make time to dance.
Freedom challenges us. Justice Jackson ruled in 1941 in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (who refused to salute the flag), "Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order."
After receiving a Congressional Gold Medal on October 6, 1994 (14 years before being removed from the Terrorism Watchlist), President Nelson Mandela said: "At the end, goodwill prevailed. At the end, the overwhelming majority, both black and white, decided to invest in peace." This is my prayer for the land that has given hope to so many. In years to come may you look back at the courage you found, and the enhanced love you have for our United States of America.
4 Apr 2018
The conscience of a nation that has forgotten apartheid
Winnie Mandela, when I first met her, was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen – tall, imperious, with a gorgeous, deep voice and a low, sexy laugh.
I interviewed her after she had to stop working for a cobbler because security police harassment was so intense that business at the store fell off.
It had been this way for 13 years, ever since the jailing of her husband, Nelson Mandela, in 1963. Now that she has died the clichés about her life are rolling in thick and fast. How eager we are to forget, and in refusing to remember we perpetuate the harm she experienced in life.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 1989 found she played a role in the murders of Stompie Seipei, 13 – evidence suggested she stabbed him twice in the throat – and the deaths of Lolo Sono, and others.
In 1992, she was charged with ordering the death of Dr Abu Baker Asvat. A decade later, she was charged and convicted on multiple counts of fraud and theft, but never served jail time.
And yet she deserves our empathy, and I'll tell you why.
In the 1970s she was a source of inspiration to many young people, some of whom flocked to her home after the 1976 uprising. Some went into exile, others remained and, coached by her, became leaders of the United Democratic Front.
Winnie was banished to a dusty village, Brandfort, hundreds of miles from her Soweto home, and that, and an incident in 1969, broke her.
In 1969, security branch officers came to her Soweto home at 3am. She was alone with her daughters, aged 10 and 9. Winnie asked to fetch her sister who was one street up so the girls would not be alone. The police refused, she was taken and her children left alone. She spent 18 months in solitary confinement, naked, not allowed to wash, and not allowed out to exercise. She did not know what had become of her girls. When she spoke of this with me, her whole countenance changed.
She was not allowed sanitary towels when she had periods, no water or cloths to clean, and so the blood caked on her. She made friends with cockroaches.
I've been in the cell at the Old Fort that she was held in. It is narrow with high, thick walls, it is oppressively dark when the door is closed, as it was for 18 months.
I believe she experienced profound post-traumatic stress. It was never treated; instead, she was expelled to Brandfort. She had a classic four-room house with a biggish yard. Money from mostly American donors saw her build a large bedroom with a quilt on it made by American sympathisers.
She used to wait at the Brandfort post office at around 11am each day for phone calls, or would make phone calls out. People who visited her were arrested and charged.
Winnie was isolated and lonely. It was here that the drinking and drug-taking began, and affairs with younger men, including a dreadlocked film-maker. The conservative black folk of Brandfort township grew to loathe her.
She would receive visiting international dignitaries like Senator Edward Kennedy in 1985, but it deepened the resentment of her.
When she went back to Joburg, in defiance of her banning order, Madiba was already in secret communication with the apartheid government.
She formed the Mandela United Football Club. It became an instrument of torture and murder of young men wrongly accused of being spies.
At the TRC hearings where its activities were recounted, Archbishop Desmond Tutu put his head on the table and cried.
Mandela wrote: "I have often wondered whether any kind of commitment can ever be sufficient excuse for abandoning a young and inexperienced woman in a pitiless desert."
And so when he came out of jail in 1990, it was with his hand in hers, even though a few Sundays before his release, her explicit love letters to a young lawyer were revealed.
On the night of his return to Soweto, she left the house early in the morning with the lawyer in full view of the world's media outside.
Zwelakhe Sisulu, who accompanied them to the US, not long after said she would yell at Madiba in hotel rooms. The entourage were not sure how to cope with these outbursts.
Archbishop Tutu said: "Mandela said to me that he was never so unhappy as in the period after he was released until he decided to leave Soweto."
Winnie was unrepentant, she ran up huge bills on Mandela's tab, was convicted on multiple counts of theft and fraud, and became an embarrassment.
Lots of false pieties will be said about her now. The truth is that once there was a beautiful, proud woman who studied social work with an older woman, Albertina Sisulu.
Through her she met a handsome, brilliant lawyer called Nelson Mandela. They fell in love. He divorced his first wife to marry her. They had two children. Their marriage was passionate. He adored her. I don't believe he ever loved anyone else as much. However, their life was never normal because of his political activities, which she embraced.
When Mandela went to jail, he was comparatively safe compared with the perilous life she experienced. The apartheid state punished her because of him, and also because she was an effective conduit for sending young people into exile for military training.
She was a devoted and exceptionally loving mother, grandmother and greatgrandmother. I'm not sure how Zindzi, especially, will cope now.
Because of the poison that is racism she was tortured beyond anything anyone should endure, and because she was so venerated none loved her enough to give the help she needed.
Winnie is the conscience of a nation that has already forgotten the tragedy of apartheid; even in her death, people do not realise how she suffered, how damaged she became and how it hurt her.
South Africa today has one of the worst crime rates in the world. It has millions of damaged people – they are apartheid's legacy.
It is in remembering and healing a wounded people that we honour the legacy of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Sleep with the angels, Nomzamo.
CHARLENE Smith is a multiaward-winning writer, editor, lecturer and management consultant.
An authorised biographer for Nelson Mandela, she teaches writing in the US, UK and South Africa.
She has been profiled twice by Time magazine and every major news network in the world including CNN, CBS 60 Minutes, BBC and Le Monde. She has consulted to the World Economic Forum, Fifa, CocaCola and others. An international public speaker and an expert in HIV/Aids and gender violence, Smith was instrumental in getting the Centers for Disease Control to research a protocol for Post-Exposure Prophylaxis after Sexual Assault that was released in 2004.
She has a Master's of Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Arts (Advanced Narrative Non-Fiction) and lives in Massachusetts. She loves art, photography, cooking and gardening.
I was awarded the Goddard College Alumni Arts Award 2015 to assist with the research and writing of my book about sexual violence called, Never a Victim.
I graduated with a Master of Fine Arts: Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College, Vermont in 2014 majoring in Advanced Narrative Non-Fiction and Digital Photography.
Don't Feed the Bears (see link below), The Boston Globe Magazine, June 23 2013. It begins:
"We underestimate the ability of wild animals and humans to get along,' says New Hampshire environmentalist David L. Eastman. 'But getting along also requires humans to behave.'"
On November 26, Charlene Smith was invited to speak on the Life and Legacy of Nelson Mandela, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Some 350 guests arrived, and a book-signing took place afterward.
A referee wrote, “Charlene Smith is a powerful, highly skilled and experienced journalist, author and communications professional. She is adept at finding the right channels for messages. She has immense patience and love for people – no-one is unimportant or undeserving of her time or mentoring.”
As a journalist, author, authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela, and ghostwriter, I have been privileged to witness the best in the great and had the time to ponder their flaws. I am struck by the fact that humility and a true love of people is the mark of greatness.
Journalists are the first writers of history and so our responsibility to truth-telling and fairness is eternal.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, I reported on anti-apartheid resistance and economics in South Africa. In Japan and Argentina, I reported on politics and economics. Publications I have worked for include the Los Angeles Times, Independent, Guardian, Washington Post, Le Monde, and others. As a television documentary maker I worked with Tony Burman at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Ted Koppel at ABC Nightline, and Ed Bradley and Anderson Cooper at CBS 60 Minutes, and others.