Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 18 July 2014

Beauty & Grace: Mbeki, Hoffman and the power of stories

The substance of the Seriti Commission is important. But those of us who watched a remarkable moment of grace yesterday when Advocate Hoffman was overcome with grief will have been reminded of why this country is so special.

“Engrave this upon your heart: there isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you heard their story.” –Mary Lou Kownacki

We are a nation that knows how to tell a good story. In our founding years we spoke about angels and demons, about Davids and Goliaths. We told stories that filled in the gaps for those who wondered what had happened in long years of exile. We told of burning flesh in lonely velds. We talked about sons who went missing, and daughters whose genitals survived electric shocks. We told stories so that we could move forward.

Once the official era of story-telling was over, we turned to spin and telling tall tales. We are now well into a period in which the news transfixes us. We call into the radio to talk about what politicians steal from us and how businessmen lie to us. We are outraged when the latest story is printed about the burnt flesh of a child, about the lost head of a woman. But our talk is cheaper than airtime. Yet somehow, our capacity for listening to one another, for really understanding each other, glimmers beneath the muck.

The Arms Commission is about muck. It is about the hunt for dirt and lies and under-handed deals. It is about the new South African obsession for the truth. Where once we sought to know what happened in our past, how our loved ones disappeared, how we betrayed one another, how it came to be that some of us thought we were superior to others of us, today we thirst for the truth about who gave which tender to whom and how many cadres were deployed to which parastatals.

Ours is an obsession with truth-finding that is necessary but unfulfilling. There are never enough answers and so we consume pages and megabytes of stories about corruption without being satisfied by them. They are like Nik-Naks, tasty, calorific but ultimately of little value to our souls.

On Thursday, the two most unlikely characters reminded us that we are capable of immense understanding and humanity even as we are engaged in conflict. And while Mbeki’s testimony before the Commission didn’t tell us anything new about the Arms deal, it served as a poignant reminder of how compassionate we can be when we are called upon to do so, even in the midst of conflict and confusion.

Advocate Hoffman was clearly upset through much of his questioning of President Mbeki yesterday. His behaviour was erratic and intense, in fact it seemed inexplicable. At the end of a gruelling period, Mbeki finally said many of us watching on television had been thinking to ourselves. We said what we knew had been on his mind all along.

As Greg Nicolson reports in these pages, Mbeki said of Hoffman: “[He is] very superior, very condescending and says all these insulting things. I hope all of us understand that we are trying to do something about creating a new society and maybe we need a special effort to take things out of our bloodstream, things that are ingrained.”

And just like that, a dam was broken. Hoffman cracked. He told Mbeki – and therefore the nation – that his daughter committed suicide a month ago and that he was on medication. He then said that he too wished to build a new society. Then his face crumpled before us, and it was very hard to watch.

It was especially hard because the racist arrogance I often hear in Hoffman’s voice seemed not to come from within this man. It was hard because the brash persona that is so vociferously opposed to affirmative action and that seems obsessed with derailing transformation was suddenly a broken, bleeding soul. Hoffman was suddenly someone  more of deserving of sympathy than derision.

It was hard to hear him sob as he looked at our dignified former President. It was hard to hear the words, “I have the greatest respect for what you do” fall from his lips and wonder whether in fact he really might respect the new blacks who run this country. It was especially difficult because it made you think that maybe these two men love South Africa equally. It made you think that Hoffman’s obsessive railing against the country that South Africa is becoming might be born of love rather than hate. It made you think that maybe he both loves South Africa and abhors it, but before seeing him cry you hadn’t quite thought that the love part was possible in this man.

And so you remember Rilke’s wonderfully wise words that, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

Mbeki extended his compassion to another human being yesterday with beauty and courage. In the exchange, Paul Hoffman became ‘something helpless that wanted our love.’

Today, the Commission will resume. Advocate Hoffman will be who he has always been and President Mbeki will continue to be himself. The truth of what happened with the SANDF contracts will still be a matter of importance. But those of us who watched a remarkable moment of grace will have been reminded that our democracy is founded on the idea that there really isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you heard their story. DM


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