Thinking of Pallo Jordan, Michael Weeder says kindness and forgiveness are essential to the task of rebuilding our society.
In August 1947, in the misery of a Cape winter, the Jordan family took occupancy of their new home on lot 83, Fleur Street, Lincoln Estate, in the Greater Athlone area of the Cape Flats. For Archibald Campbell Mzolisa (AC), his wife Priscilla Phyllis née Ntantala and their children, Nandi, Lindi, Pallo and Ninzi, this was a much-anticipated move. They ended up in Athlone – and not in Langa a few kilometres away – because Phyllis had refused to live in a location.
The law at that time regulated the movement of African people and sought to “locate ‘them’”, in the words of Phyllis, “there, away from ‘us’, and let them stew together in their wretchedness. And if they give trouble, we can surround them and put them under siege. This is the sinister motive behind it all. I hate a location; it confines one not only physically but also mentally”.
The engagement of the intellect in a principled, value-informing manner was characteristic of the Jordans. In June 1942, Phyllis had attended the campaign meeting of Joburg lawyer Hyman Basner.
This was in the Kroonstad Municipal Hall where Basner was soliciting the African vote. His speech so moved the young mother that she would later record a portion of it in her autobiography A Life’s Mosaic: “I am not here seeking your votes to send me to parliament as your representative because I think there is anything I can do there for you. Nobody can do that for you. You and you alone will do that, the day you have the right to go into that parliament and speak for yourselves.”
Little would she know on that day that her 3-week old son, Pallo, would be of the generation that in time would constitute the African voice in the Parliament of a free South Africa.
Phyllis saw life as a mosaic: “… it is people who make up that mosaic; it is they who make things happen. Their actions and interactions determine the course of events. At the very centre of all this are human relations, and to understand those human relations, we must meet real people, hear them speak, how they speak, and then we shall know why they speak the way they do.”
It is this mosaic of life, the complex of idealism along with the fault lines of our ego, that compels one to suggest a different way of considering Pallo’s liberation praxis and the truth that it veiled.
Pallo Jordan, the son of AC and Phyllis Jordan, in recent times has held the attention of the chattering classes and various other sectors of society. This has been in a fashion that evoked dismay, often accompanied by an immediate and compassionate defence.
Even his detractors would acknowledge the substance of his intellectual engagement and the substance of his public deliberation. Then there were those who saw an Achilles heel and who would resort to verbal pillory for an anticipated political gain. Or to settle old scores.
My reflections here are not in defence of Jordan.
That is achieved, to some extent, by the record of the calibre of his participation in the struggle and, ironically, by his recent unequivocal apology to his party and to all South Africans.
The public statement of contrition speaks of wisdom which blesses us as we grapple with the shadow and denied substance of our spirit. Jordan has walked Lazarus-like out of the cave of social death. He has been besieged by a multitude of accusers observing a saintly silence on the subject of their own contentious or justice-devoid past.
Jordan has responded appropriately to that ancient and ever-present naming and claiming of his true and freed self. Private confession is encouraged, but when it is of a public nature it is redemptive not only for the penitent but presents salvific and healing possibilities for society at large.
One of the persons who came into the lives of the Jordan family during their stay in Athlone was Oupa Booysen, described by Phyllis Jordan as “an old Khoi, who helped me in the garden”.
An incident between AC Jordan and Oupa Booysen provides an example of how the impaired dignity of an individual and the ensuing response is indicative of a collective sense of status and its claim on identity. A drunk Oupa had been harassing women passing by the Jordan residence.
AC had tried to lead Oupa by the hand and away from the street when the older man rebuked him: “No, man! I am no prisoner! You know, if you and I went to a white man asking for a job, the white man would give that job to me before he would give it to you. Do you know that?”
Here was a stand-off between the “coloured gardener” and the “native professor” located in the statutory hierarchy of the day. AC Jordan, secure in his place in the world – despite how South Africa had defined him – chose to respond with circumspect humour when relating the incident to his family: “I just wonder what job this would be for which I would be competing with Oupa.”
Margaret Atwood identifies the ambiguity of exile where farewells “can be shattering”. But the distant view also does not live up to the expectations of the desired and protracted longing because “returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence”.
The Pallo Jordans of our time, on a good day, represent the best of who we are as people, as South Africans. But “time and distance”, cautions Atwood, “blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it’s noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear”.
How do we respond when our beloved, political and otherwise, disappoint? When they are less lovely than we demand of them to be will be the register of the maturity of our commonwealth of communities, of our capacity to be kind and forgiving of ourselves and one another. These characteristics are not “nice-to-haves” but essential for the task of rebuilding our society, and for the growth of people, defined by our commitment and generosity of spirit.