Mandela, the Refrigerator Hum, and the Spirit of Ubuntu

You know how the refrigerator stops humming, and then you become aware that it was? Nelson Mandela taught me about the state when the hum clicks off.
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You know how the refrigerator stops humming, and then you become aware that it was? Nelson Mandela taught me about the state when the hum clicks off.

No strife

When I first heard him on the radio, after he was released from prison, I was transfixed by the lack of strain with which he spoke. I hadn't realized some edgy vibration was almost universally present in everyone else, until I heard his voice as a basis of comparison, and I began to contemplate the ideal of not living in any strife, and if it was possible to be at peace with everything.

Where are the prison walls?

Another memory is not of him, but a dream. I dreamt I was in a prison cell, with the walls converging; and a visceral sense of terror and constriction. Then I realized that until the walls actually touched me, I had exactly as much capacity to breathe as I'd ever had; that I was in charge of myself and could breathe fully, until the walls physically pressed upon me. I woke, thinking of Mandela. It seemed to me he had learned this through his many prison years, and was trying to teach me to not constrict in fear of what is not yet happening, to notice all the freedom I have in all situations, including the freedom to attempt to be clear and calm.

That's it. I have no personal Mandela encounters to share. Yet he looms large for me, as he does for multitudes.


But I came to see him as having grown from the fabric of South African "ubuntu," the word of many definitions, including, "I am because you are." I began to view him not just as a singular leader pulling everyone else, but as as someone who grew, who was pushed, out of the ground of the country which formed him.

This happened when I traveled to South Africa in 1999, invited to the Parliament of the World's Religions, to present my double-sided book for children and adults, RACE: An OPEN & SHUT Case, the program I'd created around it, and my work against "appearance-ism" (appearance-based judging) and racism after a white supremacist had shockingly murdered a black neighbor that same summer.

Safe, at "home"

The trip was suffused with a sort of extreme resonance. The night before traveling, Michael, my (black) "spiritual brother" whom I had met in a three-year group odyssey into healing racism, came to conduct a farewell ritual for me and my daughter. My final packing was delayed, so I was awake to notice the smell of gas. Somehow, our stove line had disconnected. Firemen arrived and sealed the line, saving the house, us, and our pets from potential disaster. Then we departed for our long flight to Cape Town, during which I didn't sleep at all.

I had once seen a newspaper photo of a long, twisting line of people, waiting hours in no shade to vote in the first post-apartheid South African election. I'd decided I'd never go there. I had thought the tragic history would be too sad to bear. The instant, however, I stepped off the plane, I felt a stunning, powerful sense of 'home', or 'birthplace', that took me by total surprise, infusing me with an energy that transcended sleep and seemed a constant presence.

The presence of Ubuntu

I needed to make some call at the Cape Town airport, and stood, fumbling with unfamiliar coins at the strangely configured payphone. While I was dialing, the woman in the line behind me reached across me. I thought she was trying to push to the phone. Then she fed her own coins into the slots, so my call could be connected. Some understanding of ubuntu washed over me.

I wanted to visit a township and arranged a ride. My daughter and I were dropped outside a community center. The car drove off and we were alone in a black township; completely foreign, with our pallid (mine) and golden (my daughter's) complexions. Two gracious young men from the center squired us along the dirt roads lined with shacks on a very hot day, introducing us to others, explaining and guiding. After a few hours, one asked me if I drank beer. I honestly replied, "yes", which led to our arrival at a hut with a large metal barrel in the center, surrounded by men squatting and drinking a homemade brew out of paint cans, one of which I was graciously offered. I felt incapable of refusing the hospitality, so I sipped, praying that in the spirit of ubuntu, it wouldn't kill me. I had to partake; I could not imagine refusing.

Another day, we visited Robben Island, (where all the tour guides are former prisoners and guards). At the time, tourists were still allowed to walk into Mandela's cell. That night, we sat in the audience as Mandela addressed the Parliament. Everyone must have wanted to shake his hand. Of course, we didn't. But I felt in a sense I already had, because a few months earlier, I had come to know someone whose stature and presence were Mandela-like to me. After our neighbor's murder, my husband and I had organized nightly community walks as a response. Andy is a tall black man with utter dignity, who joined us every night, and whose story of participation in the civil rights marches and busrides slowly unfolded. He became my activist mentor, a father-figure, and a model to me, of endeavoring to hold oneself with composure, calm, clarity and purpose.

My daughter and I spent another day in a township, participating in a remarkable bus tour of how violence gets seeded into cultures. Jan Arnow, a peace activist, was another presenter at the Parliament. My daughter, inspired by her mission, became her self-appointed emissary, distributing spent bullet casings with peace prayers scrolled tightly inside, which Jan had designed.

Years later, my husband and I had an opportunity to go to Cape Town. The first question our daughter asked was whether we would visit the townships. I was so proud that she felt this was the pulse of South Africa, surpassing beautiful Table Mountain, the gorgeous beaches, the vineyards, the phenomenal southern tip of Africa where two oceans merge, or even District Six and the moving museum there to the bulldozed community where so-called "races" had "mixed," created art and music, and had lived together, which was anathema to the apartheid regime.

We found Laura Ndukwana, a guide who took us on a remarkable Sunday gospel tour of her township birthplace, and the next day, still deeper into the townships, where we visited an orphanage, which had been housed in a shipping container, until Laura helped raise funds for a building. When we arrived, I thought this might be hell; a desolate metal and concrete box in a dusty place with no toys, and severely physically and mentally handicapped, abandoned children who were stroking, even licking us. Until we met the staff and volunteers, who amazingly spoke of their utter love for this place and the children, despite the enormous challenges.

Laura also showed us where Amy Biehl, an idealistic young white anti-apartheid activist had been brutally murdered by four black men. Amy's parents, incredibly, taking the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as their model, insisted their daughter's killers be allowed the same chance at redemption the white perpetrators of apartheid were offered, to hear testimony of what their destruction had wrought, and to atone. The parents and murderers, together, then remarkably formed the Amy Biehl Foundation.

My South African memories and associations go on and on in this vein, and now include an unlikely opportunity to have hosted in our home retired South African Constitutional (Supreme) Court Justice Albie Sachs, who played a vital part in the struggle; surviving prison, exile, and car bombing; appointed to the court by Mandela; who co-wrote the South African constitution and curated the extraordinary art in the Constitutional Court that once was a notorious prison.

My tribute

So, here I am, adding my tribute to multitudes of others, not just of Mandela, but to a people, a saga, and a country which is filled with despair, hope, challenges, and inequities, still... and also with the spirit of ubuntu, which has touched and inspired me so deeply.

I recently encountered a partial alphabet, which seems to encompass Mandela's legacy. It is C for Compassion. D for Dignity. E for Equanimity. F for Forgiveness. G for Gratitude. H for Humility. I for Integrity. J for Justice. K for Kindness. L for Love and Laughter. I've been considering the other letters. To me, U will certainly be for UBUNTU.

Anya Cordell is a writer, speaker, activist. She is the recipient of the 2010 Spirit of Anne Frank Award, bestowed by The Anne Frank Center USA and author of RACE: An OPEN & SHUT Case which unravels presumptions of what we call "race"; named among the "books to change your life" by N'Digo Magazine. Anya, who is Jewish, has passionately countered post-9/11 hate-backlash against Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and others. Articles include "Sikhs Bearing Pizza", "The Climate for Muslims, After the Boston Bombings" and "The ABCs of Who Should Marry; H is for Human". Her programs for children through adults tackle "appearance-ism", stereotyping and all bias. See

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