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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.

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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.

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*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.

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