MAVERICK CITIZEN FRIDAY ACTIVIST

Lwando Xaso: Keeping the spirit of the Constitution alive

By Ufrieda Ho 18 September 2020

Lwando Xaso has spent the past 18 months working as a historical researcher and content curator for an online exhibition for the Constitution Hill Trust. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

Living the ideals set out in the Constitution is a tough ask, but someone like Lwando Xaso knows that things that are worth the most come at the highest price.

Go ahead, be sniffy about Lwando Xaso’s dreads if you must. These days she’s unlikely to be easily offended; you won’t even get an eyeroll, because, for her, a comment like this is much more of a conversation starter.

“I’m more interested in how and why you’ve come to have such an outlook,” says the founder of Including Society. She started it as a non-profit that has now evolved into a consultancy focused on developing inclusion and equality in society. She is also an attorney by training, a writer (with a book of her essays expected to be published next month) and a trustee on the Constitutional Court Trust. 

She has spent the past 18 months working as a historical researcher and content curator for an online exhibition for the Constitution Hill Trust that tells the story of the making of the Constitution. The exhibition goes live this Heritage Day (Thursday 24 September).

That she’s a slasher – juggling multiple career roles – is a convergence of experiences, reflections and mentorship she’s received, and her intention to make good on opportunities. It’s part of the promise she made to herself after matriculating from Parktown Girls High in Johannesburg nearly 20 years ago. Ultimately, it’s arriving at a time and a choice when her work should be involved with what holds her attention most: the Constitution. 

Striving to live the ideals of the Constitution, finding its creativity and humanity, and even testing its boundaries is the expression of active citizenship she wants to embrace. 

“I’m by no means an activist, but I remember a piece of advice I got from Judge Albie Sachs. He said, ‘South Africa doesn’t need you to dodge bombs [Sachs lost an arm in a car bomb in Mozambique], South Africa needs you to do your job well,’” she says of Sachs’ urge and wish for everyone to play their part to make the Constitution something that breathes. 

I wrote a piece in 2013 defending the inclusion of Die Stem in the national anthem. I thought then that it was a symbol of redemption and about the creativity of South Africans to find a way to be inclusive and forgiving.

Playing her part includes creating the spaces for dialogue, engagement, active participation and inclusion. It’s getting to the confrontational issues, but not necessarily in a confrontational way. 

“To begin with, we need to arrive at conversations knowing our histories better; we don’t need to be defensive, nativist or think our narratives about ourselves are right,” she says. 

She believes tough conversations should neither drive people to their corners, nor cause them to retreat to echo chambers, to fall back on stereotypes and invective. There’s also homework to be done, like reading and learning more. She’s a podcast junkie and reads three books at a time. She abandons some too because there’s always the next book out there with a lesson to offer. There are deeper dives to be made to find contexts and there’s muscle and maturity to develop to accept that different perspectives aren’t about going to war or hauling out nails to crucify someone on the cross of cancel culture. 

Xaso speaks from experience – and it links back to the metaphor tangled up in hair. Years ago, when she was a young attorney at a fancy law firm, a black male colleague told her “dreads are dirty”. At the same time, the corporate law space was making her feel like a token of transformation, but excluded. “You were expected to leave parts of yourself at home and only present the parts they were comfortable with.”

She says: “At the time I couldn’t believe that an adult black man was being so narrow-minded and had internalised corporate culture to the extent of making a judgement about my hair being dirty and unprofessional. And being made an outsider in that space, I started to become more prejudiced, narrow-minded and tribalistic in my outlook. I started hating white women because a few white women were messing up my life. That’s when I realised that is not who I wanted to be.”

On the flipside, her work now in curating the story of the making of the Constitution and her writing sometimes invites criticism that she’s too accommodating to white people for their role in shaping democracy. 

“I wrote a piece in 2013 defending the inclusion of Die Stem in the national anthem. I thought then that it was a symbol of redemption and about the creativity of South Africans to find a way to be inclusive and forgiving. I may think about this differently today, I’m not settled on this argument any more, but I still stand by my rationale,” she says. 

She resists being pulled to extremes – it’s why she never reads comment sections, or chooses to stay anonymous on Twitter. There’s strength in finding her authentic voice, also in returning to the True North of the Constitution and remembering the lessons learnt from the men and women who’ve been its custodians.

Xaso clerked for Justice Edwin Cameron 2011. It was a year that changed her life. Her affection for the now-retired judge runs deep because of his love for the Constitution, the country and public service. But it was his trust in her, his mentorship and, above all, his kindness that shaped her to push hard, but not necessarily with hardness; to serve and to pay it forward. 

“I don’t want to emulate him, because I could never be him. What I want is to live up to the values and sensibilities we share and to be able to pass this on to the next generation,” she says. 

The next generation is the private schoolchildren she works with through her consultancy. It’s also the kids that cut across the Constitutional Court on their way to and from school, some of these schools located in Hillbrow, considered one of the roughest inner-city suburbs. 

But these flatlands of supposed fear and loathing are the perfect neighbour for the highest court in the land, Xaso says. 

“Children can come to the court buildings and ask to use the toilet. They can climb on the Dumile Feni sculpture at the entrance – it’s not behind some velvet rope,” she says. Even architecture needs to be inclusive and needs to be an active member of the community.

Inside the court, she knows the judges call each other brother and sister – “even though they are not teddy bears”, that the security guards aren’t bullies and no one is meant to feel that they don’t belong. 

“In contrast, in the corporate space, I was once called intimidating and I was crushed. I don’t want to feel like people can’t approach me,” she says.

“My friends know me as the prankster actually, the one who’s going to be silly and play jokes – except on my mom – you just don’t prank a black mother. 

“They also call me naïve because I believe in the Tooth Fairy and because I am part of Beyoncé’s Beyhive. They say I’m the idealistic one – but it’s who I want to be,” she says.

It’s idealism that’s not childish fantasy. After all, the Constitution is not a fairy tale, it’s grown-up reckoning and it takes real-life work to keep alive. DM/MC 

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