Mr. Mandela was in a prison run by the decedents of the white European settlers, who brought their own laws with them. The problem was there had never been peace among the tribes, and now the white people in power where jailing the tribesmen for fighting (or warring) and that was taking the strong young men out of their families and their tribes and others had to make up for the chores, etc. that had been their responsibilities. This is a recently surfaced memory of a time that ended up with me brutally beaten and savagely raped by the white guards at the prison; and hospitalized for 3 weeks, so I think I may never remember it all clearly.
Mr. Mandela was in solitary confinement, he could interact with the guards but not the other prisoners. He wasn’t confined to his cell for parts of the day. He said he didn’t know what to do about the situation with tribes other than his own. He thought some of the white laws were good laws but felt people like him, he rubbed his forearm to show his color, should have a say in what happens to them. I agreed. (I should say most people rubbed their fingers on their forearm to signify black or white, I don’t actually remember anyone using words for skin color, just “like me” or, “not like me,” or “like you.”)
Since I was white the guards and others told me they can’t allow the indigenous black people to vote or become part of their society because they were “savages” and warring all the time.
Uniting the tribes was Mr. Mandela’s dream. I noticed the men sang as they worked, so I decided to unite the tribes with a song. There were three tribes represented at the prison. The Zulus were considered the best warriors. They were larger and darker than the other tribes. I noticed all three tribes sang their own version of the same song. I could hear the similar sounding words. They almost sounded like harmonies. So I pointed it out to some of the men and got a few together to see if they could make the songs mesh somehow. So, under the heading of choir mistress, I gathered more and more men and told them what the white guards and others told me, that as long as they were warring, they would not get the vote, which was something Mr. Mandela thought was important. We all struck up a working relationship, something that had never happened among the tribes.
I was told I could only talk to the prisoners if I was giving them commands, so I figured out ways to get messages to the men who I thought would be influential to making peace.
Someone said some dignitaries, officials and their wives were going to visit the prison and someone else knew where we could get a piano. I told the guards we wanted to put on a concert for the dignitaries. I wrote a song about fear and frustration, almost the same as the song depicting my visit, in the movie, The Power of One. Of course Hollywood made me a boy, a girl couldn’t do the things I did. Yeah, right. The boy who played me had my attitude and gestures down pretty well.
Morgan Freeman’s character was the Zulu chief, in real life. That real man was twice Morgan’s size and he was much darker. The rules in the prison were cruel, like I had to call a man – boy. If prisoners spoke to me first they got hit by a guard, and I couldn’t object.
The night of the concert I was talking to one of my singers, Gino, and a guard said, “I’ll have to teach you a lesson,” so I left to conduct the concert, thinking he’d be slapped or punched or poked in the ribs with the nightstick. After I took off, the guard clubbed Gino, and split his skull. I realized something was wrong when Gino didn’t show up for the show, so as soon as the show was over, I ran back to where I left him and found him on the ground in a pool of blood, so I propped him up against a tree to try to stop the bleeding. I ran to get him water and as I was tending to Gino a guard pulled me away from the “savage.” So I got up, pulled away from the guard and yelled, “He’s not the savage. You are. Look what you did to him. He has a voice like an Angel.” Bad idea. I think I cried rape, because as I was being beaten and raped some of my friends from the choir came running. I said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” A few of the white guards left me alone when I said that. My choir friends saved me.
I think they thought I was dead because I was thrown in the back of a pick up. I was taken to the hospital. Bits of my skull and scalp were coming off, I could hardly breathe and I couldn’t see.
The hospital kept me asleep for about 20 hours a day for the first week or two. I had a room right up front because the wives and sisters of the inmates were coming to visit so they could bring news of my recovery to the prison when they visited. Some of the hospital staff complained because it was an all white hospital. I told the women why it was important to settle things peacefully between the tribes. I said they should set up a system of negotiation while their men were in jail. I said women are better at that type of thing, anyway, and there would be no reason to change their system when the men got out of jail. I could see the extent of my wounds in the faces of my visitors. When my black visitors could talk to me without crying I knew I must be looking better.
The hospital personnel didn’t know what to make of it. They didn’t come in my room when I had black visitors. The Press came the second week and I told them I was helping a dying inmate who had been brutalized by the white guard for talking to me, when I was attacked by the white guards. I talked a little about the abuses the guards heaped on men who had been warriors. I said I thought it was unnecessary and degrading. I made sure everyone knew the black men came running to help me, and the white guards did this to me for helping an inmate.
In fairness, it irritated the white guards all along that I was doing anything at all to help the prisoners and to try to raise the consciousness of the people who dealt with the tribes. These were clearly people raised with rules that suited their society. The rules were different, but not wrong. The most evil people, I have found, judge others using criteria someone else taught them. Our values are often handed down from our extended family and from the society we’re accustomed to. It doesn’t mean our values are right and their values are wrong. It seemed to me the men who were tribal leaders had, at one time, questioned the logic of settling things with war, but that was how they were taught to settle things, so that’s what they did. Now that the Germans were taking over, they wouldn’t tolerate wars all the time and their solution was to jail the warriors – also wrong. So there was wrong doing on all sides, and the worst thing was that the German and English settlers did was teach their children that dark skinned people weren’t human, or deserved to be poor, or were born to serve white people. I found the black tribal prisoners to be more human and humane, giving, caring, and sharing than the white people I came in contact with. No one paid attention because they were taught not to.
While I was working at the prison I took up invitations to visit the cities that sprang up around the white settlements. It seemed to me everyone was trying to make the most of thier situation.
My compassion for my fellow man, no matter what color he is, was wrong in the eyes of the guards. They made fun of me every chance they got, so when the beating began the night of the concert, there was a lot of pent up frustration – they were teaching me a lesson; one I never learned.
Also, I should say that concert was wonderful. The songs were so melodious and rich, and the voices were resonate and strong. Having an audience made the men sing even better than I had ever heard them. There was an excitement and pride that was shared by the three tribes. It was glorious and moving. It put humanity in these people who were being exploited and I could see and feel minds being changed. Many in the audience were moved to tears.
The press had been told I was beaten during a prison riot started by the inmates, but the corrections that were printed included reports about the prison, so a lot of good came out of it. Eventually the police and even the government talked to me. I may have been asked not to return to South Africa.
By treating everyone as equals I was able to negotiate a lasting peace between the tribes. The arbitration system set up by the women worked. 15 years later the indigenous people got the vote.
Nelson Mandela wanted to see me before I went home. He was deeply troubled I had been so savagely raped, because, he said, “You were a virgin, right?” I was in my early teens. I leaned forward and said, “I still am. That was rape. Rape isn’t sex.” I smiled. He cried.
Mr. Mandela said the US was in for racial turmoil. I think he foresaw the young black teenagers being killed by police that’s happening now as a signal to white supremacists they can get away with murder in those cities. He said it would happen when I was older. He said the US was lucky to have me. Of course, the moocs saw to it that nothing worked out for me. They keep me alone and they make everything so hard for me it seems impossible. My prison without walls has become more and more difficult to negotiate over the years. Mandela could see that, too, but didn’t know what to do about it.
Nelson Mandela said he was going to be President of South Africa, and thanked me for making it possible to lobby for the black vote and to end apartheid. He was a kind and extraordinary man. Nelson became President in 1994. People like Nelson Mandela make this world a better place.
I wonder if the concert was recorded? I would love to hear it again.
The US has no right to keep me prisoner for being a good person. Freedom and justice for all? Just not for those of us who fight for freedom.
You can watch The Power of One for the basic story of the prison. Of course, I wasn’t a boy and I didn’t live in South Africa, I was just a visitor for a summer. I think my parents thought I was at camp.