Charlene Smith
Charlene Smith

A great American dies

To hear a South African you’d swear that we won liberation from apartheid oppression all by ourselves. It was us who suffered. We who conquered.

And when it comes to today’s failures, then there are a host of ‘them’ and ‘they’ and ‘others’ we can blame.

Triumph is a cloak we all wear; failure is the wretched garment we throw at others.

Today a dear friend died. Maggie Seiler was an American who came to South Africa not long after democracy; she was married to a political scientist who was intensely interested in this country. It fascinated and frustrated him, an emotion every South African shares.

But while he entered into South African debates with all the argumentative zeal of someone born here, Maggie was quiet, she watched, she listened and most of all she became concerned by the fear behind our bravado, the anger masked by determined happiness.

A gentle Christian with Quaker instincts she began working for the National Peace Accord Trust – do you remember that organisation created when Zulu fought township resident, when third force agents rode into townships in pickups like hunters going after kudu, and when rifles were placed into the hands of kitskonstabels (poorly trained municipal police, who were more likely to shoot journalists and each other than anyone else).

I remember those days. I remember driving through Soweto with my jacket filling with blood from the wound of a young com laying in the arms of another on my back seat, while I and another leaned from front windows screaming at residents to remove burning barricades. He died.

I remember when there were no statesmen, when Mandela, De Klerk and Buthelezi sat on a platform convened by churchmen and where the Peace Accord was born. Neither would look at the other. Their folded arms and tight mouths showed their level of commitment to peace; to the accommodation that might save lives, it took many more to die before they sullenly did what we, the people, needed them to do.

Maggie, in the meantime, stood on no public platform, she wrote not a single angry word demanding reform, no one heard her but for the young comrades, brutalised from an early age by having AK-47’s thrust into their pre-adolescent hands. They were profoundly traumatised, and because of it, very dangerous.

Maggie took me to meet some in Katlehong. I remember one, Scott: he had been a ‘comrade’ since he was 12. He confessed he could not remember how many people he had killed or girls he had raped. Until his sister was raped and not long after killed herself. That partly woke him from the rage politicians exploited in him. He began having nightmares, in every nightmare those he had murdered came to spit on him, to taunt him.

But the worst was yet to come. Before 1991 and the unbanning of organisations these comrades were hailed as “Young Lions”, the heroes of the revolution, but after 1991, as negotiations efforts intensified they became an embarrassment. The closer we got to democratic elections and hopes of peace, the more politicians ignored them. Before, Scott boasted, he could directly call Hani, Zuma and others. Now others took messages for calls that were never returned.

He and his friends had been heroes; storekeepers paid them to protect their stores, they could walk into any and take what they liked: food, liquor, cigarettes … they could have almost any woman they wanted, and those that scorned them were made to pay.

But now with democracy so close, no one wanted them. They were an embarrassment. And so those scorned did what we should expect, but never do, they turned on society; they became criminal, they began robbing stores. They robbed and shot so many café-owners that the corner store that had been a feature of South Africa disappeared.

To listen to Scott and friends like him was profoundly depressing. It was easy to reject him and those like him. But Maggie couldn’t, she wouldn’t, she saw the humanity within them that they no longer believed in. And so she worked with them, with the aid of others at the Peace Accord Trust.

Scott, and others helped by Maggie, were hired by peacemakers in Rwanda and Burundi to assist them turn their brutalised young men and women back into dignified, law abiding, respectful citizens. Indeed, if you truly want peace, it is the killers you need to first convert to evangelists, they know better than the rest of us the savagery of war and why we need to keep it at bay.

After I was raped and stabbed Maggie was there. Just simply, gently there. She organised for a group of 12 rape survivors to climb a mountain. Our guides? Men like Scott. One 40-something-year-old white woman who had been gang-raped by black housebreakers, with her husband tied up on the bed next to her, broke down and sobbed. We were about to climb a mountain and sleep in tents on the summit in the company of men, who looked to her, like those who had attacked her.

“I can’t do this,” she wailed.

The guides faces began crumpling. One went and sat next to her and said, “I will protect you.”

Such small words, so large the impact.

She calmed, and he did, he helped her over rocks and boulders, brought her water, carried her pack, he cared for her.

As we climbed the mountain another, raped by a security guard at work also began weeping, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this.” And it wasn’t that she could not, it was that her heart had been so broken, she no longer believed she could do anything. Certainly not without alcohol.

And so I said, “Look at how the mountain is trying to help you.”

“How,” she asked.

“Look at those plants, hold onto them when you feel yourself slipping. Hold onto the saplings bending toward you, they are stretching toward you encouraging you hold onto them to pull yourself up. The mountain wants to help you.”

And as we scrambled single file up the mountain, she was between Maggie and I. I would hear her mutter, “The mountain is helping me, helping me.”

And for me, for me it was Maggie helping me, by helping these people so wounded to believe in themselves again. Helping me discover my own strength.

A friend, Kathi Walther, said she met Maggie at Bikram Yoga, which Maggie took to with enthusiasm after her husband died.

Kathi’s dog had died, she was heartbroken. She was sitting disconsolately on her own. Maggie who didn’t know her sensed something was wrong and went and quietly sat next to her. Such was the radiated warmth of Maggie’s spirit, that although she said nothing, Kathi began weeping and confided in her. As she said, “Maggie was just Maggie.”

Just over two months ago Maggie was diagnosed with liver cancer, 10 tumors. She had remarried, Clive, not long before. They had found a new home to live, they had plans to travel South Africa, the adopted home she loved.

Three weeks ago she Skyped me to say goodbye. She was matter-of-fact and while I tried to be cheerful, to be strong for her, I failed, I sobbed, we both cried. Clive has written twice-weekly to her friends, giving us long updates as our friend, South Africa’s sister, began a path that would lead her away from us, for now.

I asked her what she wanted from me, she finally said, an inspirational book. What do you buy for someone who is dying? I refused to buy one of those awful books written for the dying, she would have hated it. And so I sent her my favourite book on love and loving, The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery. It arrived this week. I asked Clive, if he read nothing else to her that he read what the little fox says after the Little Prince has tamed him:

“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

I refused to say goodbye to Maggie. Au revoir Maggie, until we meet again. Siyabonga, sisi.