This is the next story about pivotal moments on my own journey to becoming a Spiritual Pro. These stories will appear later this year in a book I am writing called Pivotal Moments.
In 2004, on my fourth trip to South Africa, I was collaborating with Richard Nefdt who based in Johannesburg. Soon after I arrived he said he wanted to take me to meet his friend Sidwell Nxumalo who lived in Soweto. Soweto? Why on earth why would I want to go there? Why would Richard want to take me? I was afraid but didn’t want to appear cowardly. Richard insisted that I would find Sid inspiring. So I became a reluctant adventurer and went along with Richard’s plan.
Now, my only images of Soweto were of from TV growing up and were of violence, burnings and shootings, so I remained to be convinced, but trusted Richard, as he’d been there before. At the time, officially just over a million people live in Soweto, but unofficial estimates put it at more like four million and growing daily. It’s busy and crowded, but better than I thought it would be, although I was still concerned for my own safety.
As we approached Senokonyeana Street in Orlando West, Soweto, there was spirit – we passed the world’s largest murals painted on the side of Orlando Power stations. But I heard of the words I least wanted to hear from Richard’s mouth, which were “Nick, I think we’re lost”. A quick call to Sid’s mobile and we were on track again, and as we approached and entered the Ubuntu Kraal that Sid created, and it was as if we had entered an oasis. Even in the darkest days of apartheid, Sid had wanted to create something beautiful for the community.
Richard, Sid and I were soon deep in conversation, like soul brothers, and Sid taught me about Ubuntu. Sid told me, “The word ubuntu is a Zulu word and translates roughly as humanity towards others. But it means much more than this. The spiritual foundation of African societies, ubuntu involves a belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all of humanity, a unifying worldview best captured by the Zulu maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – ‘a person is a person through other persons’.” I wondered if apartheid had been motivated by the very opposite, to dehumanise and disconnect.
Sid told me some of his story. He had managed to become the first black master builder in South Africa, and using his contacts and resources, managed to buy an ash dump from the government. Over a period of 20 years he had literally transformed this ash dump into the sanctuary in which I was now standing. It was a green, lush and beautiful oasis. There was a conference centre, community centre, a place for weddings, a swimming pool, kitchens, beautiful flowers, birds. I was astonished. He loved his community so much he wanted to create something beautiful for it. I then discovered that Sid has helped dozens of other people in Soweto start their own small businesses. Later as he drove us around it became obvious that he was a known and loved leader within his community, but had chosen not to go into politics as he believed he could achieve more without those incumbencies. He showed us the only street in the world where two Nobel peace prize winners had lived – Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, and drove us past their houses.
I subsequently learned that over 20% of the people that visit South Africa now visit Soweto, around 250,000 people a year and it sets trends in politics, fashion, music, dance and language.
We drove back to the centre and thanked Sid for his time and care, and we all hugged each other, another thought struck me. Richard was white, and had been in the army, so during apartheid Richard was responsible for implementing the regime.
Fifteen years previously, these two men in front of me hugging each other as brothers were enemies across a divide of colour and today they were friends in building a new country together. I was touched deeply, moved and inspired, in Soweto!
I felt humbled too. I find it easy to judge, to decide in advance where I would and wouldn’t find inspiration. Here in a place I never dreamed I would find inspiration, I found my heart opened wide and my spirits lifted.
I was reminded of some words of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, “People are like stained glass windows: they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light within.” So often the worst of situations can reveal the best of our humanity.