“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
— Anaïs Nin
This letter to her 16-year-old self gives insight into Thuli Madonsela‘s life before she became South Africa’s formidable Public Protector – one of the few current SA government office bearers who retain any integrity. Read her report on the misuse of public funds at the private residence of President Jacob Zuma at Nkandla. You can tell between the lines of this letter that she had to learn early in life to be comfortable with making unpopular choices to be able to do the things she believed in.
The following is an extract from From Me to Me: Letters to my 16-and-a-half-year old self (Jacana Media, 2012), a collection of letters written by South Africans to their teenage selves.
26 April 2012
It is April 2012, 5 months before our big 5-0 birthday. I am your future. At the moment, you are 16-and-a half years old, doing grade 11, known as form four then, at Evelyn Baring High School in Swaziland, the year being 1979. You are wondering what you will be, caught between thoughts of pursuing medicine and law. Your pastor’s disapproving views on the latter are not in any way helpful. I know you are socially awkward, plagued by a nagging feeling of being unloved and ugly.
Perhaps this comes from being teased about your big head and, more recently, two of your academically inferior classmates have started taunting you, too. Having two sisters whose beauty is always noticed and praised has not helped either. Secure in your academic prowess – for which you are always praised at home and at school – you are regarded as helpful and relied on by your family, friends, teachers and your church. This makes you feel significant. You will excel, academically, throughout your life and this will bring you to where you are right now. I’m writing to tell you to relax because you are a perfect expression of God’s magnificence.
You are the mother of two wonderful children, a beautiful daughter Wenzile Una and a handsome son Mbusowabantu “Wantu” Fidel. Your fears of being unlovable were unfounded. You have been loved and supported beyond measure throughout your life. Today, you are the nation’s Public Protector – a very responsible position that helps curb excesses in the exercise of public power while enabling the people to exact justice for state wrongs. You had the privilege of playing some role in bringing about change in this country, including the drafting of the new constitution that saw Nelson Mandela become the first black President. Mama was right, education is the great leveler. I’m glad I listened to her.
You have experienced tough times and great times, been met with nurturers and detractors, but all these life lessons have been necessary to help you bloom. You have come to realize that you are perfect for your life’s purpose. You’ve always been a dreamer, an eternal optimist. Keep dreaming, for dreams have wings. But live consciously and take time to smell the roses otherwise life will pass you by, including the opportunity to appreciate the finite precious moments you will enjoy with your late partner, younger sisters and parents.
Above all, remember that love is everything and don’t forget to forgive yourself and others.
Love you unconditionally,
Thuli Nomkhosi Madonsela (Your older Self)
If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you… What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.
I began to ask each time: “What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?” Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, “disappeared” or run off the road at night. Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.
Next time, ask: What’s the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.
And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.
― Audre Lorde, from Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984/2007, The Crossing Press).
My mother has a brave and brilliant eco-activist friend, Frank, who has been fighting to save the estuary of the Black River and squatting in an abandoned building in Paarden Eiland, despite being over 80 years old. The other day, the City Council came to deliver an eviction order, and when they got there, Frank was dead. He’d overdosed on heart pills. Well done, Frank, for choosing how to live and how to die. You’re an inspiration.