With mordant observations and harrowing — though not graphic — tales of his tenure as a political prisoner in South Africa, anti-apartheid activist Sathyandranath Ragunanan “Mac” Maharaj taught a packed Sherrill Library auditorium that human dignity can prevail against oppression.
But, to achieve that, one must mentally get outside oneself and focus on the suffering of others.
“One thing no one can rob you of, without your complicity, is your dignity,” Maharaj said, recalling the lessons of the late African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, whose memoir, “A Long Walk to Freedom,” he smuggled out of prison, 10 pages at a time.
“I think the dice roll in such a way that I keep getting into trouble,” he deadpanned, amid fielding questions from moderator Roger Berry, a friend who worked with him in South Africa from 1996 to 1998.
Maharaj, born in 1935 in the South African coal-mining town of Newcastle, was active in the fight against South African apartheid. In his 20s, a time when many people are contemplating graduate school, he went to Germany to learn how to be “either a propagandist or a saboteur” and, during the 1960s, was imprisoned by the government for his activism. He endured his worst period of torture, at this time, contemplating suicide — one time deciding to hurtle himself on the sword held to his throat, before his torturer presciently flicked it away moments before the planned impalement. Then, however, his thoughts pulled him out of his own situation.
One thought was about the humiliation suffered by his grandfather, whom, as a boy, Maharaj saw being assaulted by a white Afrikaner piqued by the boy’s failure to yield the sidewalk to him.
Another thought was a fantasy about capturing one of his torturers, and exacting revenge.
Other times, he’d provoke the torturer with the shortest fuse to knock him unconscious, making it impossible for Maharaj to reveal any secrets.
More important, however, Maharaj began speaking with Mandela, who had a surprising tactic in facing his enemies: empathy.
Mandela, Maharaj said, advised that one has to “get in their shoes in order to move them.”
Specifically, Mandela realized that he could find common ground with his oppressors: just as the white Afrikaners were oppressing blacks in the South African policy of apartheid, the Afrikaners, themselves, had resisted oppression by the British Empire, fighting the Boer War on their way to the founding of the Union of South Africa.
What’s more, Mandela “insisted I learn the language of the oppressor,” not just conversational Afrikaans, but the whites’ poetry and literature “to really get inside their heads.”
Mandela, he added, learned to control his temper, as “uncontrolled reactions play right into their hands,” while respectful treatment of an enemy can result a return of respect, even in the midst of the struggle.
These lessons, learned in the prisons Maharaj wryly likened to his “university” education, are applicable to today’s rancorous political and campus climates.
“You don’t negotiate amongst friends, you negotiate amongst enemies,” Maharaj said, remembering Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz who, in the face of worldwide anti-apartheid sentiment, urged the South African government to “start negotiations so the violence can cease.”
Rebels, he said, are always told to lay down their arms before negotiations can begin, but that gets the equation exactly wrong. For that reason, he added, he never criticizes the “right of any oppressed people to choose their means of struggle.”
But the end of hostilities is a necessary goal. Labels are unlikely to yield change.
“Find a way to break through,” he said. “Get around the labels to get to the solution.”
Advice for students
After an hour of answering questions from Berry, with whom he worked in South Africa from 1996-98, Maharaj fielded a few from students in the crowd.
One psychology major asked Maharaj about the importance of understanding one’s oppressor, and how that could prompt change.
“We’re talking past each other,” he said, “talking in soundbites.”
To another, he said, people need to “Insist leaders in all walks of life get in conversation,” and that Mandela knew that “I can only shift (an opponent) by meeting him where he is.”
And change, Maharaj told another student, doesn’t require a charismatic leader. Though Mandela galvanized the movement, real change came about when others around the world mobilized against apartheid.
“Change happens when you get involved in activities,” Maharaj said.