At the height of apartheid-regime repression, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu would declare with unstinting confidence that “God is on our side!”. In many a political funeral, Tutu would turn to face the police and the soldiers, commanding them to “join the winning side!”. He believed that God’s presence was in evidence wherever the poor, the marginalised, the socially excluded, the violated, the dehumanised and the disenfranchised are.
Tutu’s theory continues to be severely tested each time the poor lash out in violent anger, at one another and at the most vulnerable in their midst.
So how are we to know where God is, in and with whom? I can claim no special insight into the mind of God. Nor do I have the ability to decode the deafening silence of the ancestors at this time.
It’s not for me to give voice to the disappearing lakes or explain the melting glacier on top of Mount Kenya. I do not claim to have found the secret factory that manufactures the unemployed and the backyard firm that produces the desperate who fill our city streets.
But there are moments when even I have seen God dancing in the eyes of a street kid in Johannesburg. I could swear that I have heard the voice of God in the low and high notes of some profane and sacred hymns alike.
As well as residing among the poor, maybe God also dwells in the small mercies of strangers, in the aha moments when humans connect deeply and in the brilliance of the artist.
Legendary South African sculptor Xidonkana Jackson Hlungwani dared to carve a wooden sculpture of God’s giant leg, complete with its unseemly swellings. At his first encounter with God, Hlungwani caught sight only of the legs of God up in the sky.
Hlungwani used to tell of how he was about to commit suicide when God intervened directly. From then on and for the rest of his life, Hlungwani became a carver of wood, a seeker after truth and a high priest in Harry Belafonte’s Paradise in Gazankulu.
Few sculptors can match Hlungwani’s creativity and fewer still could estimate the irreverent reverence of his art. Only he could make Jesus a soccer star. Only he could conjure up a modern shrine of holy art.
Sixteen years ago, as a foreigner – an umuntu woku hamba or motswa-kwa – living in Lausanne, Switzerland, I took up the extremely foolish task of learning French as an adult. That followed my discovery in the streets of Lausanne, a city built on a steep hill, that my famed fluency in 11 South African languages was of little use when the bus ticket examiner pounced.
This year, in the first week of May, I returned to Switzerland, for the umpteenth time over the past 16 years. Admittedly, I did not meet God everywhere and every time I have been in Switzerland. I certainly did not meet God at Zurich airport immigration, on Monday, May 4, where the female officer who interviewed me seemed to fear I might never leave Switzerland once allowed in.
Nevertheless, during my recent visit to Switzerland, there were moments when I reconnected with the angels and the gods of the streets. One such occasion was when I met Liliana, my former French teacher, at a coffee shop in St François Square, Lausanne, on Tuesday, May??5.
Within a week of my arrival in her French class 15 years ago, Liliana kicked me out on account of my general lostness and my complete lack of French language basics. She herself and all my classmates, the majority of whom were refugees from Bosnia, did not speak a word of English. The French we were learning was the only language of communication between us.
As Liliana and I reminisced, we saw in that potentially catastrophic situation we were thrown into bits and pieces of God lost between and within human languages.
Liliana served us more than supper when some colleagues and I gathered at her house, in the suburb of Pomy, outside Lausanne, on May 6. We were introduced to the riveting world of her watercolour-based artwork. With a strong bias for women and children, her work is deeply influenced by her previous sojourns in South Africa and Mozambique.
Much of it captures, among others, the questions of ongoing difficult relations between Europe and Africa. In her painting titled Exile 2, which she graciously bequeathed to me, one sees the beginnings of a vast sea that ebbs away from a shore on which a group of African women and children stand watching a departing small boat overloaded with young African men, off to some place in Europe.
Looking deep into that painting, I catch a whiff of God fleeing into exile and slowly metamorphosing into Bob Marley’s “buffalo soldier … fighting on arrival, fighting for survival”.
We went to visit a friend in his hospital room in Geneva Theo Schneider, who has worked as translator in South Africa for more 40 years. When we saw him he smiled broadly. Then he spoke to us in the most poetic Xitsonga. But it was his fluency in the language of reciprocity, justice and reconciliation that touched me deepest. As I studied the contours of the smile on Theo’s face, my mind touched God, for a moment, and she felt soft and beautiful.
Professor Tinyiko Maluleke teaches at the University of Pretoria