Traveling with South African 'Ex-Cons' to D.C. | Sojourners

Traveling with South African 'Ex-Cons' to D.C.

Photo by Tom Getman
President Kgalema Motlanthe, Jim Wallis, and Denis Goldberg. Photo by Tom Getman

There are lists about the best places to visit before our journey to the final reward — awesome places like the Grand Canyon and Table Mountain, two of my favorites for their evocative transcendence. There are also regular delightful articles in the Wall Street Journal about “the most beautiful/interesting” or “must-visit” bookstores on the face of the earth like Shakespeare in Paris, Powell’s in Portland, Ore., and our own Politics and Prose in D.C. The latter is picked in large measure because of its elite clientele and famous author events.

But one of the most compelling “not-to-be-missed” lists comes from Travel Advisor that searches out, through its correspondents, the most compelling off-piste guesthouses and museums around the world.

The two lists (bookstores and museums) came together for me recently when I was privileged to co-host with former colleagues the visit of former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, an ex-convict from the apartheid era. He served 10 years in prison for the “treasonous” act of standing against the Afrikaans Nationalist regime, along with Nelson Mandela and 1000s of others who spent many years on Robben Island or in Pretoria Central Prison. Many died in the process. President Motlanthe was accompanied by Denis Goldberg, who was convicted along with Mandela and served 22 years. Nicholas Wolpe, the facilitator of the trip, is a cousin of the late Congressman Howard Wolpe. Nic’s father would have been one of the Rivonia accused at the trial in 1963-4 but for having made a daring famous escape with several other comrades.

Each of our visitors, through their distinctive faith experiences, was an incarnational illustration of their creeds. They gave riveting witness: Denis Goldberg to a humanitarian socialist conviction, Kgalema Motlantha to his social justice Episcopal Christian faith, and Nic Wolpe to a secular Jewish activist tradition.

The distinguished South Africans toured Washington, New York, and Houston to tell the compelling story of Liliesleaf, in Rivonia-Johannesburg, and the work of the Liliesleaf Trust, for which Kgalema Motlanthe is chairman, Goldberg a Liliesleaf advocate, and Wolpe is the Chief Executive Officer. Four of us from America are also trustees. Liliesleaf Farm is the location where six of the 10 most famous trialists were arrested in July 1963. And it is now nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The photo shows the workers hostels, the farmhouse, and some of the exhibition and conference facilities — including the coal bin where Mandela’s typewriter and diaries were found in the police raid.

In June 1964 Justice Q. DeWet sentenced eight of the accused along with Mr. Mandela, who had been arrested eleven months earlier near Durban, to life imprisonment rather than condemnation to death by hanging. Mr. Motlanthe was convicted later in 1975.

In Washington, D.C., the delegation met with officials at the State Department, White House, Institute of Peace, Congress, several foundations, Sojourners, and the Episcopal Cathedral. The Cathedral gathering was with 17 former diplomats and Hill staffers who served in South Africa or participated in the drafting and passage of the Comprehensive Sanctions Bill and Law in 1985-6. The recorded sharing of lessons and correction of memories was instructive for other apartheid situations and will be available to researchers in both the State Department and the Liliesleaf Library. They also shared riveting personal stories with 25 Sojourner staff over lunch.

The purpose of the Liliesleaf Museum is to make certain that the past is archived in a way that the “fragile thread of history” does not hang on the clouded memories of a diminishing number of activists from the ignominious era. Instead this critical period of 20 th century is clarified and bolstered by the compared stories and diaries of those who participated in the South Africa transformation. Some risked their lives and fortunes, and many others were part of the liberation struggle in government here in the U.S. and other countries, such as the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian nations.

Understandably Travel Advisor indicates that the Liliesleaf Farm is “one of the most outstanding museums in the world.” It contains, among other treasured items, the diaries, memorabilia, and correspondence of the trialists and one copy of the Freedom Charter — the parallel to the American Declaration of Independence and the British Magna Charta.

For anyone planning a trip to South Africa, it is recommended that Liliesleaf be a part of an informed itinerary along with the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill Human Rights Court. The Constitutional Court is on the site, and built with the bricks of the 300-year-old Old Fort Prison that held Gandhi, as well as many other struggle luminaries. All are sites that ennoble the best of the human spirit in the face of insufferable persecution.

The most striking attributes of the three “ex-convict” representatives was their lack of animosity toward their oppressors or anger about the years of imprisonment and exile. A palpable joy was evident in what they endured and from which they learned so much.

If you add to your travel lists Liliesleaf and other “not-to-be-missed” historical sites, look a bit deeper. Discover as I did that it is often people compelled and inspired by their risk-taking commitments to spiritual and humanitarian inclinations that are making words come alive like a spreading illuminating flame.

Tom Getman and his spouse Karen have traveled frequently over the last 30 years in South Africa. He serves on the boards of Sojourners.

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