Unlearning indoctrination: a conversation with Mandela’s white Afrikaaner secretary.

“What might it take for you to change your mind? Nothing simple, like what you’re going to have for lunch, but your whole ideology? Maybe even the belief system you’ve carried with you from childhood?”

– RN Life Matters, 16 February 2016.


Yesterday I listened to RN Life Matters’ interview with Zelda la Grange, author of the book Good Morning Mr Mandela: A Memoir. For 16 years, Zelda faithfully worked for Nelson Mandela – first as a typist in the new Mandela-led government in 1994, then as his private secretary for many years after. Her story is remarkable for many reasons, but one in particular: Zelda, born a white Afrikaaner in apartheid South Africa, was a racist by the age of 13.

In fact, when the referendum was held in 1992 to end apartheid, 21 year old Zelda voted ‘No’. The reason why, she explained on Life Matters, was white privilege:

“I voted no, because this serves my being, I am comfortable living apartheid, I am privileged, so I didn’t want this to end… I am on the receiving end of apartheid, the positive side, so I didn’t want it to end and I voted no in the referendum.”

Zelda was raised in a very conservative (read: racist) household that believed, as most white South Afrikaaners did, in the rightness of apartheid: white supremacy, racial hierarchy, the physical and political separation/control of ethnic groups. She describes how the ideology supporting the regime was reinforced through propaganda via the media, the education system, and white churches. Zelda says:

“We never questioned it, because we were on the receiving end of privilege.”

The system of apartheid involved the complete dehumanisation and brutal treatment of indigenous South Africans. Zelda mentions in her interview just two of the many manifestations of this dehumanisation: the births and deaths of Black Africans were not even officially registered; and the movements of Black Africans were restricted and brutally policed.*

She notes, though, that a weird sort of cognitive dissonance was in play, as so many white children were brought up by loving Black domestic workers; Zelda herself adored her Black caregiver. But, she says, these Black people were acceptable because they were serving white people; those beyond a white household’s Black servants were not acceptable or worthy of fond human regard.

In February 1990, after 27 years of incarceration for being a liberation activist and “terrorist” against apartheid, it was announced that Nelson Mandela would be freed from jail. Zelda recalls being in the family swimming pool when she found out; her father, who regarded Mandela as an evil Communist, came outside and said to her:

“Now we are in trouble… the terrorist [Nelson Mandela] has been released.”

Not knowing who he was, Zelda was unperturbed by the news and continued relaxing in the swimming pool. Her father, fully aware of both the karmic debt accrued by centuries of brutal oppression by whites of Black Africans, and Mandela’s status as a resistance leader, feared the retaliation – and the possibility of Mandela leading it.

Zelda explained the white fear:

“Retaliation, because of centuries of oppression and discrimination, and I think understanding it now that we really feared that if Black people had the opportunity, they would retaliate.”

In 1994, despite having voted against the ending of apartheid in the 1992 referendum, Zelda took a job working as a typist for Nelson Mandela’s secretary, in the newly elected Mandela government. Psychologically it was a tense time for the white oppressors, even as it was a time of hope and liberation for all who worked to end apartheid (and of course, all who were oppressed by it).

At some point during her two years as a typist, Zelda nearly bumped into President Mandela and his security detail in a corridor. The chance meeting was an unexpectedly emotional, life-changing experience for her. Not only did Mandela stop and extend his hand to greet Zelda first, but he spoke to her in Afrikaans – her language. The language of those who had violently oppressed his people for centuries and incarcerated him for nearly three decades.

This excerpt from Zelda’s book describes the meeting:

“One doesn’t really know what to do at that point except cry, which I did. It was all too much. I was sobbing. He then spoke to me, but I didn’t understand him and was completely in shock. I had to say, ‘excuse me Mr President’, for him to repeat what he had just said to me, and after gathering my thoughts, I realised he was addressing me in Afrikaans – my home language. The language of the oppressor.”

The significance of Mandela addressing her in this language was profound; Mandela had said that when you speak to a man in his language, you speak to his heart. It was a great gesture of respect, afforded to a young privileged Afrikaaner woman who had voted to keep apartheid, yet went on to be on the payroll of the new Mandela-led government.

Zelda’s tears were tears of guilt. The realisation hit her instantaneously; the warmth and gentle kindness Mandela radiated deepened the sense of guilt she felt. Zelda could not fathom why he stopped to meet her, a low ranking staffer – and an Afrikaaner one at that. Seeing her emotional distress, Mandela put his hand on her shoulder and attempted to calm her down.

Thus began the unlearning of Zelda’s lifelong indoctrination. 

It is remarkable that the charisma and calming moral leadership of one person was able to trigger in many the undoing of what remains a huge problem for humanity – learned and deliberately taught supremacist thinking. Zelda’s transformation mirrored that which other whites were going through at the time; she recalls witnessing others having the same reaction to Mandela, the same experience of guilt realisation.

Because as Zelda’s father’s reaction to Mandela’s release had demonstrated, the white fear was retaliation – coupled with the desire to maintain privileges, it basically ensured racial hostility against the oppressed population for all eternity. But Mandela subverted their expectations. Zelda told Life Matters:

“It would have been justifiable for him to have resentment, and yet he did exactly the opposite.”

Mandela’s choice of forgiveness, negotiation, and conscious peace made her and many other whites feel grateful, disabled their fear-based defense mechanisms, and enabled them to finally see the horror of what they had inflicted upon Blacks and people of colour.

Some time later, Zelda had the opportunity to see President Mandela speak at an official lunch; in attendance were representatives of the ‘rainbow coalition’ of the new South Africa. Mandela calmly (and almost fondly) shared experiences of his incarceration. Here, Zelda realised the gravity of what had been taken from him – that he had been imprisoned longer than she had been alive, for fighting against injustice.

In the interview, Zelda again describes the “awful” shame that overcame her; but it was mixed with the realisation that Mandela was not interested in white shame, but reconciliation and progress. It has to be said, though, that Zelda’s shame – really the dissolution of the ego that blinds those who benefit from systemic oppression to the evil of it – was (and is) essential to both reconciliation and progress.

On a personal level, guilt and the emotion of shame – which accompanies true empathy with the oppressed – is necessary in order for the unlearning of indoctrination to occur. 

This enables reconciliation on a societal level, too: genuine recognition of wrongdoing against an oppressed population by those who benefited from that oppression occurs when enough individuals in the oppressor group have become aware of and subdued what I call “the collective oppressor ego” (its hallmarks: defensiveness, sense of entitlement, centering of the oppressor’s worldview/history, and resentment of the oppressed group).

On the other “side”, an oppressed group’s refusal to retaliate after being empowered, and a willingness to transform the pain of oppression through forgiveness of former oppressors, is also necessary for reconciliation to occur – and facilitates the unravelling of indoctrination. Mandela understood this – though some liberation activists criticised him for giving up too much in negotiations with the apartheid government, he knew his approach was necessary in order to placate an indoctrinated, fearful and violent white minority… a privileged population who perceived equalilty as a loss.


*The current wikipedia entry for Apartheid is actually a good introduction – read it here.

You can listen to Zelda la Grange’s full Life Matters interview here.


’20 inspiring black women who have changed Australia’

To mark this year’s International Women’s Day (which is tomorrow), NITV has put together a list of 20 trailblazing Indigenous women who have changed Australia. I highly recommend having a look at the list HERE. The influence of these women extends from 1812 to today.

A warning that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders should exercise caution when viewing the article, as it contains names and photographs of deceased persons.

The first woman on the list … every time I read about her story, it haunts me (her photograph reminds me of many relatives who have passed on – which only serves to strengthen that feeling). Good to see filmmaker Rachel Perkins on the list.

“Climbing the secret staircase.”

I recently watched Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 TED talk called ‘Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence‘ – have a look:

In it, he talks about how seeking transcendence is a part of being human:

“Most people long to overcome pettiness, and become part of something larger. And this explains the extraordinary resonance of this simple metaphor, conjured up nearly 400 years ago: no man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

And it reminded me of these words I wrote on the “My Philosophy” page of this blog in 2010:

“There are many who are already transcending the old divisions of the past and shackles of tradition, forging new identities based not on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or political factions, but, instead, rooted in a higher awareness and understanding of themselves as unique and powerful individuals that are part of a greater interconnected whole.”

The words on that page remain true for me. I wrote about the necessity of moving “past tribal dependency towards individualised awareness”. But this does not mean that I think one has to renounce all “tribal” loyalties. And if what Haidt contends in the video above is correct, for most people this is actually impossible to do. Even individualists “circle” around a sacred value, a sacred cause… liberty.

In contrast to the pure individualism I was into in my mid 20s, today, I nourish my roots to place and my kin/group in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. I am concerned about the conservation of our traditional lands and healthy development. But I also know that the safety and well-being of my kin is deeply and inextricably connected with the well-being of us as individuals, the well-being and survival of all of humanity, and the health of the ecosystems that sustain us. This – these linked concerns – are the highest priority. And they are linked to my love and concern for the country in which I was raised and am grateful to live, Australia.

So here is my broad contention: we face multiple global threats as a species. Given this, it is the people pursuing a form of self-transcendence that allows them to perceive beyond loyalties to tribes (subcultures, cultures, nations, religions, ideologies, “people like them”) who will lead the way to safety. This is because their self-transcendence will enable them to fully comprehend that our survival depends upon a global consciousness, the ability to see how our localised realities and concerns do connect to one shared human destiny.

They will lead the way – and are leading the way – by being able to speak to and mobilise their tribes, their groups, to safeguard humanity’s common destiny, and in turn the destiny of their group. They will lead (the individuals in) their groups to progress towards more holistic, healthier ways of living and working together. And they will mobilise (the individuals in) their groups to connect with, cooperate with, and care for others who are doing the same. I have discussed such leaders in the past. In posts to come, I will discuss more.

Writing for courage.

Anne Frank quote

“Her poignant account of the greatest evil imaginable revealed a gifted writer and profound thinker who humanised the inhumane”, writes onthisdeity.com. Anne Frank. One of my eternal heroes. She is believed to have died in early March, 1945, along with her sister Margot Frank, whilst imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Get a copy of her diary, read excerpts of her diary, read about her, watch, and never forget.

ESSENTIAL viewing for contemporary peace: 12 Years A Slave

There’s a good reason this film won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 86th Academy Awards, as well as the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Lupita Nyong’o, and a Best Actor nomination for Chiwetel Ejiofor:


12 Years A Slave is a devastating portrayal of the story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), an adaptation of his 1853 memoir ‘Twelve Years a Slave’.  Northup was a New York State-born free African American man, an accomplished violinist and farmer, a husband and father, who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery.

Other cast members include Adepero Oduye, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Liza J. Bennett, Brad Pitt, and Paul Dano. This motion picture was directed by the brilliant Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) from an adapted screenplay written with John Ridley, and shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt – who worked with McQueen on Hunger and Shame. It was produced by Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company.


I cannot quite put into words the power of this movie. The story will stay with me forever. So I will just say this: 12 Years A Slave is not merely an historical picture. It is much more than a biographical drama, more than a faithful adaptation of an autobiographical novel. And it is much, much more than an unflinching look at one of the ugliest manifestations of human evil in known history.

Yes, this film is all of those things, and for this I feel grateful to all who made it a reality. But let us not make the mistake of resting in the anaesthetising assumption that that warped consciousness – such that would lead a human to think it not only okay, but justifiable, to torture, own, or exploit another being – is essentially dead in the developed world. It is not.

I see this film as having contemporary parallels. For 12 Years A Slave highlights one of the most disturbing and insidious aspects of the human mind – the ability to desensitise ourselves from the suffering of others, in favour of our own comfort, pleasure, wealth, aesthetic preferences.

Perhaps unintentionally, the film is rich in metaphors for the justifications we in the modern, supposedly “enlightened” and civilised world make for purchasing products, supporting governments, hoarding wealth or simply turning away from the suffering of others, in favour of base and corrupt self-interest.

One such example: A slave owners wife, Mrs Ford, who is disturbed by the anguished wailing of a Mother (who happens to be a slave, Eliza) for her children, a young boy and little girl, taken from her and sold to other slave owners. “I cannot have that kind of depression about”, she whispers. The grieving Mother is removed, permanently.

Out of sight, out of mind… the oppressor’s comfort is conserved. The victim’s pain and vocal suffering was disturbing the comfortable, civilised peace. The victim’s pain – not the evil, vile acts that caused her pain – was seen as the problem.  (Mrs Ford had earlier, for a brief moment, entertained sympathy for Eliza’s plight, before telling Eliza it would be okay, as she would soon forget her children).

So then. What is evil?

Evil is not just abject cruelty and extreme violence. It has been said that evil thrives when good men do nothing. Evil also thrives when those perpetrating and supporting evil indirectly, fail to see – or wilfully refuse to see – how their actions (or inactions) are part of that evil.

When we allow our governments to torture, mistreat, imprison. When we punish people for fighting for their freedom. When we simply turn away from the suffering of others. We are Mrs Ford. We are the person who claims to be compassionate, to be good, whilst simultaneously supporting systems literally sanctioning the harm of others.

When you see this film – and you must – think about the hidden cruelty and inhumanity built into our global economic system today. Think about how we tell people fighting to merely be free that they should be less “angry”, and consider them less worthy of sympathy when they have the audacity to show the desperate emotions that come with the struggle to survive.

Think about how easily and happily we remain ignorant of the suffering that may have gone into almost everything we consume. Slavery is not dead, and nor is the moral blindness that enabled it. It is incumbent upon everyone who truly believes in freedom – and I hope that you do, as I do – to open our eyes.


“The last word: everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup. I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery. And the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.” – Steve McQueen, Director, 12 Years A Slave.

Exploring Truth through Theatre and Film.

“Bindjareb Pinjarra is devised theatre at its finest. It’s well-paced, with relaxed delivery, attractive larrikin clowning, and confessional intrusions where actors drop character to address the audience from their own experience. This last is effective in illuminating deficiencies in the way we educate young people about Australian history and culture.”

Cameron Woodhead, The Age, June 15

‘Falling for Sahara’ aims to raise awareness about the refugee experience to the wider Australian community, and highlights the important role sport – in particular AFL – plays in creating social cohesion for newly arrived communities in Australia.

Staff writers for essendonfc.com.au

This has been a great week for professional and personal growth, under the tutelage of professionals (I am now being schooled in Playwriting as well as Screenwriting). Seeing these two productions over the past week made it that much better! If you get the chance to see the following play or film at some point, I would encourage you to do so 🙂

Bindjareb Pinjarra, & the Playwriting Weekend

On Saturday I saw Bindjareb Pinjarra, a BRILLIANTLY constructed, entertaining, deeply moving and thought provoking improvised comedy about a massacre (that sounds wrong, but somehow, it totally works). THIS review in The Age (do read it) sums up pretty much everything I enjoyed about the storytelling elements of this production, so I won’t duplicate that discussion here. Instead I want to share the two big questions that emerged from it, for me.

Bindjareb Pinjarra is about the mass killing of the Nyoongar people at Pinjarra on October 28, 1834. This event was recorded by White authorities as the Battle of Pinjarra but mourned by local Nyoongar as a massacre. What is known is that Governor James Stirling led a force to punish the Bindjareb tribe. They took the Aborigines by surprise, and shot indiscriminately for over an hour (shot at people who certainly did not have the weaponry that they did). The death toll, though the subject of much debate and denial, included women and children. These deaths were recorded and passed down in Oral histories on the Nyoongar side, whilst news reports and “official” counts by Whites maintained the numbers were significantly (and conveniently) lower.

Towards the end of the play, one of the actors breaks character to address the audience (this happens at various points in the telling) and poses this question to us: did the Blacks exaggerate the numbers to make the killing seem worse than it was (although any deaths make this event heinous, in my mind), or did the Whites downplay the numbers to make the Nyoongar people look dishonest, stifle their claims that it was a massacre, and thus, legitimize their actions (at least, in their own minds)?

In essence: where lies the truth?

A challenging question, one that I feel completely compelled now to explore in my own writing – not specifically in relation to this event, but in general.

There is another question that is raised in the play that needs to be addressed, for it is one that comes up a lot whenever the topic of historical injustices (particularly as they pertain to Indigenous peoples) comes up.

And that is: why does it matter today?

An infuriatingly ignorant question. People do ask it, though. I’m sure we’ve all witnessed people question why we should “dwell” on these issues. Insisting that we should focus on the “positives” and not judge the motivations and actions of previous generations. And I personally don’t. I don’t judge the actions of previous generations. I judge the actions, and attitudes, of current generations. An understanding that current conditions, prejudices, disparities in health and life outcomes, rates of incarceration, and a myriad of other issues are directly related to the histories that preceded today, is possessed by anyone who has a functioning brain and a basic grasp on the concept of ‘cause-and-effect’. Acknowledging past injustices does not solve the problems, but it is most certainly the first step to healing what is a deep psychic wound that most non-Indigenous Australians (myself included) have the luxury of ignoring.

Similar to the cynicism expressed in regard to the Apology to the Stolen Generations, people who question the use of acknowledging today that this event – and others like it – were indeed massacres, despicable acts of unjustifiable violence, are completely, and embarrassingly, missing the point.

Falling for Sahara & Refugee Week Film Festival

On Monday night I attended the Refugee Week Film Festival at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville, a charming old little cinema. The program featured a few short films made by young former refugees/participants in the 2011 Young Media Makers Project (mentored by my Pacific Stories producer Amie Batalibasi) and the screening of the 2011 Melbourne feature film, Falling for Sahara (supported by the Essendon Football Club and directed by Khoa Do). The evident somberness of the audience kind of bummed me out – especially since the theme of Refugee Week this year is ‘Restoring Hope’ (I guess they didn’t get the memo, or possibly read this piece in The Age). I did, however, accidentally end up sitting next to Inderdeep, who wrote the Big Issue article that inspired my Big Issue article, on the ‘About The Messenger’ page of this blog! (yet another coincidence. They’ve been happening with increased regularity of late).

It is important to remind people that ‘refugee’ is NOT a derogatory term, an “identity”, or some kind of subset of humanity. It is a political term used to denote people who are stateless, primarily due to war and persecution, who are in need of a homeland and the protections that come with having citizenship within a nation state. They have the same basic human needs as you and me, the same desires for safety, and are entitled to the same basic human rights. Relocating to a new country from a camp or some other place is, of course, hugely challenging, in many ways. The four short films screened addressed some of these challenges. The first made the point that perspective – celebrating the light side of life – is important, especially if you have been through disturbing circumstances. The second was a documentary, interviewing two young refugees in good ‘ol Footscray (one Asian, one African). Another dramatized the culture shock of a newly arrived refugee, unfamiliar with life in a modern city.  And the last was a well-constructed satirical piece on Australian government policies towards refugees from particular ethnic backgrounds.

The feature film we watched, Falling for Sahara, also showed some of the challenges of being in a stigmatized minority and crossing cultures through the characters of three young men/teenagers of African descent, living in housing commission high-rise flats in Melbourne (that look grand with good cinematography!!!). Directed by former Australian of the Year Khoa Do, it features a script developed in conjunction with the cast of African-Australian actors, and (then) recently arrived refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia. The three young men come from different circumstances. MJ is a refugee who experienced camp life in various countries in Africa before coming to Australia. Beniam is a lothario type, and the film opens with him seducing the beautiful Achol. And Ramsy is an aspiring Australian Rules football player.  All three are affected by, in varying ways, a stunning Ethopian girl named Sahara.

I love seeing a group of people in Australia represented on film who pretty much never appear in media (unless presented in a sad/troubling news story or as ‘The Other’). In Falling for Sahara, the three young men are just a few dudes getting on with their day-to-day lives. Beyond the idiosyncracies of specific accents and peer group dynamics, their preoccupations are pretty UNIVERSAL: love and sex (at least for Beniam), belonging, appeasing their parents whilst having some sort of agency over their own lives, and a sense of identity. The way these characters pursue these wants is (obviously) influenced by their background culture (and its expectations of how they should behave), attitudes that they have been brought up with, and the complications that come with having to engage with (and try to integrate into) a dominant culture that contains elements simultaneously trying to reject them. A culture that has its own ingrained attitudes or misconceptions about who these young men are to begin with.

Another thing I appreciate about this film is that it does touch on some pretty sophisticated and complex issues: internalized and external racism, class, collective tradition versus individual choice. They emerge through snippets of dialogue, but are not explored fully.  This didn’t really bother me too much, as by the 15-minute mark it felt to me like a “slice of life” kind of film, a snapshot of the lives of these young people. Once I had decided as an audience member this was what the film would be, I surrendered, and enjoyed the experience of seeing a part of Melbourne we don’t often get to see.

But, if I could change anything about this movie, it would be to give the script a stronger focus on the issues that the film lightly touches on, by making the protagonist of the film Sahara. I found myself wanting to know who she was. Why she just watched as the completely innocent MJ is dragged away by police, who have jumped to the conclusion he is hassling her based entirely on his appearance, not behaviour. How she felt about being married off to a man in Ethiopia. Why a private school educated, modern young woman could not assert her own wishes in the face of thousands of years of cultural tradition.

Obviously, that was not going to happen given football was supposed to be prominent in the film – The Essendon Football Club were supporters of the production, and have been working with the Flemington Housing Estate for a number of years.  But perhaps even that focus – the role of sport in integration – would have been better served by making Ramsay a stronger central protagonist. We don’t find out much about him other than he plays footy, has mixed feelings about Australia, and fancies Sahara. The dominant sport cultures reveal a lot about a nation. I wanted to see how he got along with his teammates – in the film, Ramsy complains his teammates don’t pass to him, but it isn’t clear whether this is true or not. His character is seemingly eager to belong but also uncomfortable with Australia; trying to be in it and pursue a sporting career yet simultaneously dealing with the tension of elements within that culture rejecting him.

I wanted to meet his family. I wanted to see him making escalating and tough decisions to get what he wanted.  Essentially, I wanted more drama.

So many meaty themes touched upon and hinted at, as well as characters we haven’t yet seen on screens. I would LOVE to see them explored more fully in future productions. Given that I am a writer, maybe these are topics I should tackle myself. And I have a suspicion this was the message for me this week.


Special shout out to Amie Batalibasi and Lia Pa’apa’a who opened their new studio/art space ‘Sunshine Art Spaces’ yesterday!  http://prettywak.com/

Also check out this great t-shirt I scored on the weekend, from FCAC – really fits with the theme of this post:

Available from Footscray Community Arts Centre

Matchstick perspective of Australian History

I did this exercise with a group of people the other day. Great for visual learners! And great for all of us who are not of Aboriginal descent to do.

You will need about 1600 black matchsticks, and a handful of white matchsticks for this exercise.

Get everyone to gather around a designated floor space or large table top. Line up the black matchsticks next to each other, so that they create a continuous “worm” or row.

Once all 1600 black matchsticks are lined up, ask the group how many generations their family has been in Australia. Find the highest number. In the group I had, the maximum number was 5 (an Anglo-Australian woman).

According to the number, get an equal number of white matchsticks (in our case, of course, it was 5). Line them at the end of the “worm”.

Then, explain this to the group:




Some of the more CONSERVATIVE ESTIMATES say that ABORIGINAL PEOPLE have been on the continent of Australia for around 1600 generations.

The First Fleet (the 11 ships that sailed from Great Britain to establish the first European colony in Australia) sailed into Botany Bay in January 1788, or 8 to 10 generations ago.

1600 generations, versus 8 to 10 generations.

Visually, this looked something like this

(using my groups 5 generation maximum):

Something to think about.

My immediate reaction when I first did this exercise was “Wow. That certainly puts the whole ‘we grew here, you flew here’ nonsense well and truly in the shade.”

Just a bit 😉

A little more humility and perspective would help race relations in this country a great deal.

Australia, very young and mostly free… 

A beautiful, wonderful country… with severe blindspots.