One of the worst feelings that any parent can experience is the sense of helplessness when their child is in need of help and they cannot do anything about the situation. When circumstances are out of their control and their child is yearning to be guided, helped and rescued, a parent will feel a gnawing pain that will eat at them until their child is out of that situation. The emotion of utter despair probably originates in a place of feeling responsible for their child.
Late in 1976 and into 1977, after being incarcerated for over a decade, Walter Sisulu would feel this pain of helplessness. Nelson Mandela had gone through the same experience a decade earlier when he lost his son Thembi, who had died in a car accident. No doubt, Mandela and Sisulu would have been joined by other prisoners on Robben Island in their wailing of helplessness. These men had dedicated their lives to the struggle for freedom. The high price they had to pay, among others, was this gnawing pain of helplessness towards their families in the face of their imprisonment.
Mac Maharaj, in an interview with the Talent Consortium, would later state that he could never forget Sisulu’s reaction to receiving the bad news. Thinking that he had gone to console Sisulu, Sisulu’s reaction was simple: He was proud of his daughter. In the words of Maharaj, it was “proof to him that she had grown up and developed a social consciousness that would necessarily keep her in the mainstream struggle…”
“From the welter of painful incidents that belonged to a particular web,” recalls Maharaj, Walter Sisulu “would pull out a strand that would help you hold together.” Despite this strand, Sisulu could hardly hold it together. All he could do was to write to the Minister of Police and Justice at the time, Jimmy Kruger, complaining about the conditions and the torture endured by his daughter. “My concern, fear and anxiety about my daughter’s wellbeing has grown over the weeks and months since her detention and there being no apparent end of her detention, I have reached a point where I am compelled to write this letter…” writes Sisulu.
At that stage, his daughter had been in detention for over six months. She was only twenty-three. Sisulu would describe to the minister how he feared his daughter’s well-being after prolonged detention, especially in solitary confinement, which he suggested could cause permanent mental damage. He mentions that they had exchanged a letter to each other where she attempted to be light-hearted but that she also had admitted to suffering from depression.
Reading the letter one can feel the sense of powerlessness, as he calls it, in coming to his daughter’s assistance but he felt compelled to voice his outrage at the treatment of his child. Ending off the letter, he is explicit to Kruger that while he has stood up for millions of South Africans and while he has attempted to be their voice, it is only natural that he would stand up for his daughter – Lindiwe.
Twenty-five years is a generation. Yet we easily forget the sacrifices made for this freedom and democracy we enjoy today. One of the most unnerving characteristics of our age is how easily we forget. Given that we judge efficiency by speed these days, we are often confronted with the reality of how easily it is to forget what happened in history and people’s history.
Anamnesis is central to the Judeo-Christian milieu. The act of remembering, especially sacrifice, lies at the heart of these two faiths and often in their religious celebrations they would have a moment of recalling. Yet the recalling is more than just a remembering, it is an re-enactment of the episode or the event. As a consequence, anamnesis is not just simply remembering, it is actually re-enacting the memory. The most important of these, for Jews at least, is the Passover and the anamnesis of Israel’s delivery from slavery in Egypt. Annually, on the appointed days during the month of Nisan, Jews would observe or commemorate “seder”, the ordered ritual meal eaten on the first night of Pesach. Seder is not just a meal that has a certain order but it is ultimately the re-enactment through memory of what the Israelites did during that first Passover.
One wonders whether Walter Sisulu ever forgot that gnawing pain of helpless felt for when his daughter was in prison. What is almost certain is that his daughter – today a leader in the ANC and government – has not forgotten her memories and suffering from those painful prison days. She, like so many who fought for our freedom, walk around with those deep scars which are best left unremembered and forgotten in the subconscious. Some may have gone for therapy and others have found other coping mechanisms but what is certain is that the lives they live today are ultimately shaped by their experiences.
When leaders such as Lindiwe Sisulu therefore stand up to fight against injustices perpetrated against people across the globe it is her memory and re-enactment of what she endured and what she fought for. Reading about the stories of women Palestinian prisoners in Israel, ones such as that of Ahmed Tamimi, Kifah Hattab, Khalil Abu Aram, the other 31 women prisoners in HaSharon prison or the 20 in Damon prison, what most certainly could be conjured up within the being of someone like Lindiwe Sisulu is a passion to stand up against an injustice that she is too familiar with.
When she protests against the atrocities of an apartheid regime such as Israel then what she is doing is no less than an anamnesis of her own struggle against apartheid in her beloved South Africa. Her challenge of the state of Israel, and its atrocities against the Palestinian people, must be seen as a re-enactment of her own life’s story against atrocities meted out against her own people.
Unlike her father during his prison days, Lindiwe Sisulu has immense influence today. Like her father, she is also gnawed by a pain. Not one of helplessness but of personal affliction. She experiences that pain again when she hears of acts of brutality meted out against Palestinian women. But it is also a pain caused by that developed sense of social consciousness, which her father told Mac Maharaj about. Lindiwe Sisulu must therefore use that influence, which he father never had, in the fight for justice. For he would demand no less from her.
Faiez Jacobs is the Provincial Secretary of the ANC in the Western Cape and ANC Member of Parliament.