I wrote this, this morning… so it’s fresh [laughs and applause]

I have spent most of the early morning from 3 o’ clock thinking what I’ll say to you… there is so much. First of all I want to say that I am in your country and have been drawn to your country, the beautiful South Africa – which for some years in our own struggle we referred to as Azania – because of a deep love for you, of your heroines and heroes, of your long long struggle toward positive humanity for yourselves and all oppressed people on the planet. You have been a great inspiration to all the people on earth who are interested in and devoted to justice, peace, and happiness. I was asked to provide a title for my talk and this is what came to me: “Coming to See You Since I was 5 Years Old: A Poets Connection to the South African Soul.”

The reason I have been coming to you for over sixty years is because when I was five years old, my eldest sister – Mamie-Lee Walker – came home from college, her freshman year, and taught my 11 year old sister and myself your national anthem, “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica.” We were the only children of any colour who were taught this song in our tiny, totally segregated town, in the deep south of the United States in Georgia. The somber intense passion and dignity in the melody entered my heart and it has lodged there for the last 60 years. It did not just lodge there; it propelled me into the deepest of curiosities about who Africans might truly be, because in the deeply racist United States of the 40s and 50s (when I was born) Africa was shrouded in the most profound mists of distortion, racially motivated misperceptions, gross exploitation, and lies. Africans were almost cheerfully despised, considered to be savages certainly, and yet for me and my sister Ruth there was our sister Mamie coming home from college – whose fees my materially poor parents sweated to pay – there were the sounds of “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica.” “God bless mother Africa” was sung so earnestly by her loving sons and daughters, her horribly abused children that had made an impression on our psyches never to be erased.

And also there is this, my love for Winnie Mandela, whose voice throughout the apartheid years kept alive for millions of us in the United States the reality of the South African struggle. What happened there? We in the United States ask ourselves, “Can it be that if she is guilty at all of any bad behavior, it is because she is human; and being human, and having been treated badly under apartheid misrule worse than many of us can ever imagine, she broke?” And after giving us her love and substance for so many years, what was the New South Africa’s response to her? If we cannot extend compassion to those whose lives prove their devotion and love, who are we that life should smile on our stinginess of heart? We do not understand, we do not, we do not understand; nor will our children ever understand, why a country does not have both its parents, its father – yes – but also its mother; neither of them perfect, but both of them necessary for our birth. It was deeply disturbing to many of us, in the United States, that Bill Clinton who could not respond to the genocide of 800 000 Rwandans, and even De Klerk are going down in history as more honorable, more smiled-upon, by many South Africans than Winnie Mandela [raving applause]. How can this be?

When I was shown the house where the Mandela’s lived, I was struck by the fact that – this woman, this soldier, this “man among men” as Abraham Lincoln once said of the indomitable freedom fighter Harriot Tubman; he meant she was, you know, a soldier [laughter] – this woman is portrayed ironing. I have nothing against ironing – I don’t do it very much – but it seems a strange choice, lovely as Winnie Mandela looks while ironing, for someone who spent so much time harassed, fire-bombed, jailed, stuck in solitary confinement for 200 days, whose every move was monitored and contested by white-supremacist, Nazi, fascist police.

It was outside of what was formerly the Mandela home in Johannesburg that I heard a version of “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica” I had never heard before. It came from the mouths of young men who were making a condescending parody of it, while holding out their hands for money. Knowing that that moment would live forever in my consciousness, I felt that I and the South African struggle had lost enormous ground. The African way with women leaves much to be desired. And I am not faulting only the men, some women are content to be potted plants, here and elsewhere but most are not. I have a poem about this:

A woman is not a potted plant
Her roots bound to the confines of her house
A woman is not a potted plant
Her leaves trimmed to the contours of her sex
A woman is not a potted plant
Her branches espaliered against the fenses
Of her race
Her country
Her mother
Her man
Her trained bossom turning this way and that
To follow the sun of whoever feeds and waters her
A woman is wilderness unbounded
Holding the future between each breath
Walking the earth only because she is free
And not a creeper vine or a tree
Not even honeysuckle or bee

These stories of coldness and lack of compassion would make anyone doubt their people’s loveliness. And yet, “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica!” You are so lovely. So lovely. It is this loveliness who you deeply are as so many of us have forgotten that we are beautiful. And it is not all our own fault. We have entered a period of such instability and impoverishment of spirit that even though charged with our sole-care our ministers, our teachers, our spiritual guides, are themselves also in a state of fright. Never before has humanity faced losing the earth itself, which is exactly what we are losing as global warming increases, and as greater climate disasters affect us worldwide. We are all of us at some level living with a degree of terror that humanity has never experienced before. It is not so surprising therefore, that there are those who feel the need to protect themselves behind vast barriers of wealth, but such protection, such protection is an illusion. Mother nature presents a very different kind of army than the ones we are used to fighting: the armies of poverty, colonization, weapons of all kind, media double-speak that keeps us confused.

In fact what is so chilling about Mother Nature is how indifferent she can be to whom should be punished for the crimes committed against her. We are all being punished. And this is because we have forgotten one of the most basic of the things which make us beautiful, that we must never fail, never fail, to have respect for her. And we must cease at once from taking more from her than what she is willing to give [applause].

And here I will insert another poem from my collection, “Her Blue Body: Everything We Know”

We have a beautiful mother
Her hills are buffaloes
Her buffaloes, hills
We have a beautiful mother
Her oceans are wombs
Her wombs oceans
We have a beautiful mother
Her teeth, the white stones
At the edge of the water
The summer grasses
Her plentiful hair
We have a beautiful mother
Her green lap immense
Her brown embrace eternal
And her blue body everything we know

“Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica” I would remind you that this beautiful mother of which you sing, and of which I write, is not an intellectual idea, it is real and it is nature. It is earth, it is this world; it is the cosmos, the moon, the stars, grass, and planets; it is your lions and elephants, just as it is our buffaloes and bears. It is the everything of life that is our Mother; our goddess and god. It is this everything of life we must return to, bow to, protect and nurture. It is largely because we have forgotten the beauty of our Mother that we have forgotten the beauty and wonder of ourselves; for we are one.

On a practical level, what is to be done? I realized during the Bush years in the United States, which were all but unbearable for many of us to endure, that we must in no instance rely totally on external leadership. That each of us has a leader within us. It is our conscience. One of the ways in which to develop this leader is to sit for some portion of the day in meditation or in contemplation (if the thought of meditation seems too far -fetched). This is the time, all the old Africans knew, that the soul is permitted to catch up to the runaway body, and the speedy chattering mind. During this state of inner development, it sometimes revealed that not only are we all connected to one another, but that indeed we are one another. Our separation is largely illusion. It’s realizing this, that develops the intention of caring for the totality of life, not just for ourselves. I have been a political, social, and spiritual activist for most of my life. I feel connected to people and struggles all over the globe. The foundation for this work, as an adult, lies in the circle of women, and sometimes men, that I have joined.

And this is the medicine today that I bring to you. At the moment, from what I read in the papers; your government is not listening to your cries for a new and better way to exist; that democracy, of which much has been said, is still radically unclear to the people who still hunger and thirst. As well, the old methods of protest have left a great weariness and disappointment. It is time to circle. I advise that every one of you in this room, call up 7 or 11 of your smartest, staunchest, and most thoughtful friends. And that you create a circle that meets at least once a month in each other’s homes. There, in the safety and privacy of that sacred place, enter thoroughly into dialogue about what you wish for and will work for in your country [applause]. There need not be a specific agenda; in fact it will work better if there is not. What I have found, especially with women’s groups, is that when a certain number of women get together; leaving all agendas outside the door, whatever is most urgent gets addressed anyway. There appears to be magic simply in the willingness to tackle life’s hardest problems from the humble position of simply being one among many in a circle of individuals caring for the common lot.

I began my writing life as a poet, went to write 7 novels, a dozen short stories and essays, volumes of poetry and children’s books. But now I am re-embracing poetry as a priority which, in my opinion current movements for liberation and justice desperately need [applause]. Poetry is the life-blood of rebellion, revolution, and consciousness-raising. And it is the raising of consciousness that is the most effective way to ensure lasting change. About this, Steve Biko was absolutely right. Once your consciousness changes, so does your existence.

I believe we must spread the idea of circling all around the globe till all our circles merge; transforming the face of the planet organically. Making our public political leaders, those who refuse circling with the people, as obsolete as they frequently show themselves to be; we are capable of leading ourselves, if we can develop the capacity to listen, to hear what we ourselves believe. This will undoubtedly mean releasing ourselves from attachment to many of our gadgets, which are drowning out our inner voices.

Lastly, I would advise you to dance [laughs and applause]. Over a period of about a year, I wrote a book with a series of poems, which will be published in the US next month. It is called: Hard Times Require Furious Dancing [laughs and applause]. I believe Africans who have suffered so grievously and who obviously have also experienced a great deal of joy, you see that sometimes in your smiles and eyes, have always known this which is why dance and song is prominent in the culture of all Africans. In writing this book, Hard Times Require Furious Dancing, I revisit the times in recent years that my heart was bursting with sorrow. Times when it felt like losing family, friends, or the earth itself, were more than I could bear. And yet, just as spring time makes us forget about winter, my own love of the wonder of existence in any condition or form, forced me to wish to celebrate life. And so, I hired a band and a dance floor, and invited friends and family to a gathering in which the only directive was, “Don’t talk, just dance!” [laughs] Times are hard everywhere, mother Africa, also known as Mother Earth is very irritated with us. We may be on our way to extinction as a species; I wish her only happiness in any outcome. Hard times require furious dancing. Every one of us in this large room is the proof.

“Nkosi sikelel’ Africa!”

Thank you

[Standing ovation, applause, and ululation]

By Alice Walker

(Alice Walker is an Author, poet and activist. The speech was delivered on 13 September 2010 at the University of Cape Town and this transcription was originally published on the Steve Biko Facebook page)


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