Sunday, 9 June 2013

The news that Nelson Mandela

is back in hospital should come as no surprise to anyone. He is after all an old man. He was born in 1918. That he has, given his life history, managed to live this long is remarkable. 
Yes, since 1990 he has had much better medical care than many South Africans can dream of even now. I doubt anyone would deny he also has also managed to earn the right to such care - and that he would want the same for everyone else in South Africa.
International Literacy Year was a fact when I was finally able to write a letter to Mr Mandela (as he then was). I did not expect a reply but the poet Judith Wright suggested I should write to him. He was, she gently pointed out, someone I would have approached for support if it had been possible.
Yes, I would have approached him. He would have been a powerful voice in support of literacy. He would have been a powerful voice in support of something even more important - the right to a means of communication. 
Not everyone I know agrees that such a right exists but I firmly believe that everyone has the right to a means of communication. It is, to me, as basic a right as things like food and shelter. If we deny people the right to a means of communication we deny them human dignity. 
The right to a means of communication is not the same as a right to communicate. That is something different. There are legal limits on what people can say - and rightly so. There are laws about libel and racial vilification - and rightly so. 
But we should all have the ability to communicate something. For some people, those with profound intellectual and physical disabilities, there may be serious obstacles when trying to communicate. It is then up to the rest of us to try and accommodate them when we can. 
There are other people who choose not to communicate much. They are perhaps just naturally quiet. They may simply not be interested in saying much. 
Some of us - and I have no doubt this includes me - have too much to say. If we have that sort of capacity to communicate then we also have a responsibility to use it wisely and well. Not all of us do. I have no doubt that I infuriate people at times. No, I do not set out to do it deliberately.
I wrote a letter to Mr Mandela. I did not expect a reply. I did not ask for one. I told him I was sure he was aware of International Literacy Year and gave him some names of people in South Africa who were supporting it. If, I suggested, he was interested he could talk to them about it if he happened to meet them. 
It was not quite the sort of letter I had written to so many other people seeking their support. Here was a man released from prison, a man with so many other things to do.
Some weeks later there was an answer. It said all the expected things. It was of course written by one of his aides but, underneath the typing, there were a few words in his own handwriting.
I wish I had kept that letter. It was shredded along with several thousand other letters. I simply did not have the means to keep them in a tiny single room in a university hall of residence but I can remember what he told me.. 
"Don't stop now", he told me, "because you have really only just begun".   He was right - and I wanted to say it before he goes. 


Miriam said...

There are also who appear not to want to communicate, but really they do. Like this one.

catdownunder said...

I can remember an "elective mute" in a class when I was a student. We were sitting together and I was supposed to be helping her to do some work. The teacher got rather annoyed with her for being so slow. When the teacher went back to talking to the rest of the class the child moved much closer to me. I think, had we been alone, she might actually have said something but the circumstances were against it.