AJN May 2013 visit to South Africa
Thursday, 02 May 2013 | 22 Iyyar, 5773
Big themes are infinitely difficult to translate into the daily rhythm of life. As President Obama noted so incisively in his Jerusalem speech just before Pesach: “Even as we draw strength from the story of G-d’s will and His gift of freedom, we know that here on earth we must bear our responsibilities in an imperfect world.” The road to freedom is a long and hard one. It demands sacrifices, struggle and constant work.
This was brought home to me on a recent visit to the South African Constitutional Court in Johannesburg. While the court was established in 1994 following South Africa’s first democratic election and the adoption of a constitution, this building was completed in 2004. Its purpose was to ensure that the ideals of the constitution – the creation of a just, equal and free society - were protected and defended. It was however not so much the inspirational ideals that caught my attention; rather it was the building itself.
It is set in central Johannesburg in the site of the Old Fort, an old defensive fortress built by Paul Kruger in 1893, then extended into a prison complex with holding cells and separate facilities for blacks and whites. During the apartheid era it became a centre of brutal oppression (including torture and food deprivation) particularly of its Black inmates. While famous people like Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi passed through its ramparts, it was most notorious for its inhumane treatment of blacks for simple offences like infringing the pass laws (restricting blacks to specific locations).
One of the abiding images of my youth was driving past this building with its foreboding exterior and eerie atmosphere. In my early twenties, I imagined a dove flying over its walls and wrote a poem “Observer” which included the following verses:
I lifted my wings and flew
bedazzled by the moon’s sweet dew…
The barbed wire sentries cried
the boxes silently screamed
their bars shaking
the prisoners lifted their dusty manacles
Like one before his partner’s grave
no more did I want to pave the streets with song
but to the heavens I wept
for the prisoners who there slept
On this visit, I got to walk through the prison gates. The Constitutional Court has been established within the fort on the very place where some of the prison blocks once stood. Some of the cells have been retained in their cold and dark original state. There is now a brick pathway between the old prison and the new court building called “The Great African Steps” representing the bridge from the oppression of the past to the hope of the future. The old stairwells of the prison have been retained and one of them is built into the new court. The actual bricks of the prison have been incorporated into the court building.
This spoke to me as a Jew. So much of our tradition is built on the principle of incorporating memory into identity, the past into the present. We too have taken the bricks of our Egyptian oppression and made them into a pathway to our future. You simply can’t be a Jew without owning your past, without the remembrance of Egypt, Rome or Auschwitz. The Midrash suggests that the very bricks used to build Pithom and Ramses were used by G-d to build his stone and sapphire heavenly paving… It is an audacious act of hope to turn suffering into redemption, mourning into celebration and is at the very heart of our Seder and Jewish consciousness.
One of the dramatic symbols of the South African Constitutional Court is the image of a tree built into the foyer of the building. “Justice under a tree” is a traditional African form of dispute resolution and slots in the roof allow sunlight to filter through a wire canopy of leaves casting dappled light across the floor.
The deep yearning for justice is basic to the human spirit and elemental for a Jew. Moshe was chosen for his role because he simply could not tolerate injustice in any form: be it the oppression of his brothers, the cruelty against strangers or the abuse of women (at the well in Midian).
Pesach remains a cri de coeur against injustice and the enslavement of others. Moshe’s mission crystallised not under a tree but at a bush that burned and was not consumed. It’s an apt image of the ongoing struggle for freedom and justice. The challenge remains in a world flawed by Iranian and North Korean dictators, where child labour persists and sex slavery flourishes. South Africa may be democratic but has a long way to go until all its citizens can breathe freely and easily.
It was Nelson Mandela who said “Man’s goodness (like freedom – my addition) is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.” It was Moshe who discovered the flame and challenged his people to keep it burning for all generations.