Much of the literature of the past century is a de profundis on behalf of the desperate and the deprived in gulag or ghetto or township or camp, but in spite of its desolate content that literature has been a positive influence: it has had the paradoxical effect of raising spirits and creating hope. We need only think of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to remind ourselves how the integrity of an individual writer can underwrite a whole culture of resolution and resistance. It can even underwrite a new idiom of affirmation, like the one employed in the United Nations declaration 'Tolerance and Diversity: A Vision for the 21st Century.'
The document is direct: 'The horrors of racism — from slavery to holocaust to apartheid to ethnic cleansing — have deeply wounded the victim and debased the perpetrator. These horrors are still with us in various forms. It is now time to confront them and to take comprehensive measures against them.' The document further declares that 'we all constitute one human family' and asserts a new scientific basis for this belief by invoking the proof afforded by the mapping of the human genome. Yet the scientific reinforcement of the argument remains just that: reinforcement. Its primary strength comes from moral and philosophical sources, from the witness of heroic individuals to the belief that human reason is indeed beautiful and invincible.
When we see the signature of Nelson Mandela at the bottom of the declaration, it immediately acquires a kind of moral specific gravity, for the name Mandela, like the name Solzhenitsyn, is the equivalent of a gold reserve, a guarantee that the currency of good speech can be backed up by heroic action. There is nothing loose-mouthed involved. When Mr. Mandela's writing rises to a noble statement, that statement has been earned. It has behind it the full weight of a life endured for the sake of the principles it affirms.
Consequently, there is genuine healing power rather than mere rhetorical uplift in Mr. Mandela's espousal of the aims of the Durban conference, and the conference could well adopt as its sacred text something he wrote in his book, Long Walk to Freedom: 'It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, black and white. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken away from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.'
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), speaking at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa.
The following was one of Nelson Mandela's favourite poems, a poem he used to read to his fellow prisoners and ANC activists while incarcerated on Robben Island.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
WE Henley (1849-1903)