Ariel Dorfman delivers the Eighth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture today
July 31, 2010 – Critically acclaimed Chilean-American author, writer and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman delivered the Eighth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at the Linder Auditorium in Johannesburg.
The theme of this year’s lecture was: “Whose Memory? Whose Justice? A Meditation on How and When and If to Reconcile.”
The lecture was opened by Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Achmat Dangor. He welcomed the crowd of over 2000 to the event, the culmination of a week-long programme in which Dorfman has engaged with writers, artists, students, academics and the general public on issues as wide-ranging as protest theatre, justice and reconciliation, and the role of art in deepening democracy.
Following the singing of the South African national anthem by Sibongile Mngoma, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand Professor Loyiso Nongxa welcomed the audience.
Nongxa said: “It is a privilege for me to welcome you to the Education Campus of Wits University. As you can see, this is the Eighth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture and it is the third that has been hosted by Wits. The mathematician in me says, ‘Wits: three, the rest of South Africa: five’!”
Chairperson of the Nelson Mandela Foundation Professor Jakes Gerwel welcomed the guests, saying: “The Annual Lecture has become the flagship event in the programmes of the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Centre of Memory and Dialogue.”
He explained that Mr Mandela, for the first time in the history of the Annual Lecture, would not be attending the event, but was watching it from the comfort of his own home, enjoying his well-deserved retirement from public life. Gerwel said: “We wish you all the best for the year ahead: good health, happiness and good and considerate friends … [We wish that] he may enjoy the peace of retirement that he has been pleading for.” He then introduced guest speaker Ariel Dorfman.
Dorfman started the lecture by telling the audience that he couldn’t recall when he first became aware of Nelson Mandela, but that he grew to feel a closeness with him as he came to understand the commonalities between South Africa and Chile’s struggle for freedom.
Dorfman then touched on the parallels between the South African experience under apartheid and Chile’s experience under dictator General Augusto Pinochet. He made the point that both governments were quick to use violence to stamp out any form of resistance.
“Both dictatorships sought to create, through violence, a world where no rebel would dare to step into visibility, would dare to step forward,” Dorfman said.
He elaborated, “My increasing reverence for Mandela cannot be separated from the fact that his people and my people were bent on a parallel quest for justice, against a brotherhood of enemies who wanted to disappear us from the face of the earth, as if our very memory had never existed.”
He commented on how South Africa and Chile had regained their freedom and started to tackle the complexities of adopting democracy at similar times.
He said: “It was not until his [Mandela’s] country and mine and indeed the world began to wrestle with the dilemmas of how you confront the terrors of the past, without becoming a hostage to the hatred engendered by that past; it was not until both South Africa and Chile were forced to ask themselves the same burning questions about remembrance and dialogue in our similar transitions to democracy; that Madiba became more than a legend to me.”
Dorfman explained that he would approach the lecture from the perspective of a storyteller, whose duty it was to tell the tale of the oppressed people of Chile.
He told an anecdote about a Chilean carpenter, Carlos, who we met in a shanty-town while doing literacy work. He told how Carlos illegally hid a picture of former Chilean president, Salvador Allende, behind boards on a wall in his house, throughout Pinochet’s 17-year rule and even for a time thereafter. Only in 1998, following Pinochet’s arrest for crimes against humanity, was Carlos finally able to dust off the picture and hang it proudly in his home.
Dorfman explored the idea that if one man could keep Allende’s memory alive for all those years, he, in his own small way, was rebelling against Pinochet’s attempt to control and even erase people’s memories.
“Memory does not exist in a vacuum,” Dorfman said, explaining that the historical experiences of both Chileans and South Africans needed to be handed down to younger generations to ensure that those memories did not die.
Dorfman spoke about the truth and reconciliation commissions in both South Africa and Chile and said that, despite the many flaws of these commissions, “These inquiries create a version of history that the majority of citizens and especially their children can access.”
He said: “This creation of a shared history through the public airing of a harsh past does not, however, unavoidably lead to a true reconciliation. Other steps may be necessary to heal a divided community.”
Dorfman then screened a clip from his documentary,A Promise of the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman, which showed a woman mourning Pinochet’s death and how Dorfman had spontaneously approached the woman, who supported his former enemy, to comfort her. The clip of this controversial act of empathy was Dorfman’s way of demonstrating to the audience how allowing the various memories of a divided nation to exist peacefully alongside each other was key to successful reconciliation.
“Compassion is ingrained in our species, coded inside the circuits of our brains. This is how we manage to become human, by creating the conditions for a social network where the suffering of others is intolerable, where we need to pity and comfort the afflicted.”
He spoke about how, in his plays and novels, he focused on the divisions that separate people from those that have done them harm, and how it is difficult to confront your worst enemy while resisting retribution. He said that, despite this, we needed to reach out, that it was only when we try to understand our enemies’ stories that we can start to reconcile and create moments of commonality.
“As South Africa has proven, it is not impossible to make exceptional encounters like the one with that woman last longer than a minute [and] become part of a country’s major reckoning with itself.”
He recounted how, when he had visited the District Six Museum in Cape Town a few years ago, he had encountered a tour guide who told a story about a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in which a policeman admitted to killing the parents of a young boy. When the grandmother of that child asked the policeman what would happen to her grandson when she died, he replied: “Then I guess I will have to take the child home with me.”
Dorfman said he could not verify this story, but argued that its accuracy was immaterial: “Communities give themselves the chronicles they need in order to understand the world, just as individuals create for themselves the stories they need in order to survive with a sense of self.”
He went on: “That policeman is telling us all here, right now, today, that we cannot undo the damage of the past but must strive instead to undo the damage to the future. We must prove in our actions tomorrow that we have learned from the terrors and sins of yesteryear.”
He then looked to the future, indicating that meditations on justice, memory and reconciliation are useless unless we strive to build a world that future generations deserve to inherit.
He said that the way to build a tomorrow that we could be proud of was to ensure that we build a future that we can all participate in: “One of the ways out of our predicament is to multiply the areas of participation, create veritable oceans of participation.
“A nation that does not take into account the multitude of suppressed memories of the majority of its people will always be weak, basing its survival on the exclusion of dissent and otherness. Those whose lives are not valued, not given narrative dignity, cannot really be part of the solution of the abiding problems of our times.”
The way to achieve this, continued Dorfman, was to diminish the fear that is pervasive in societies that were previously oppressed. He emphasised that it was only through diminishing the fear associated with talking and making our voices heard that we would begin to trust each other.
“There will be no trust unless we make efforts to disarm the most powerful, those who believe themselves the exclusive owners of the truth and can therefore, when they are challenged, commit all manner of crimes and misdemeanours in the name of their apprehension.”
He closed by talking about gardens around the world that have flourished, despite being in the shadow of conflict. From the ghettos of Warsaw and the gardens in the shadows of First World War trenches to Mr Mandela’s treasured garden while in prison, Dorfman delighted in how these spaces offered the glimmer of hope that people thirsted for in times of darkness and desperation.
He said: “All humans hunger for flowers and fruit; they all ache to keep alive a hint of something that will grow in spite of the surrounding night of destruction.”
He ended by saying: “There is no guarantee that we will ever reach the deep reconciliation we need as a species. Indeed, I tend to think that some damage done is irreparable. But when despair visits me, I hold onto the image of the garden, a garden that grows like memories should. A garden that grows as justice should. A garden that grows like true reconciliation should.”
“We need to always remember the multiple, infinite gardens of Nelson Mandela and his people.”