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On the Road to Mandela and Forgiveness

By Martin Moran

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“Why aren’t you angry?” Actor and playwright Martin Moran heard this question often after he told his story of how he forgave the man who sexually abused him as a boy. Haunted by the question, Moran went on a quest to examine rage and its relation to compassion. He put together his journeys and experiences in his one-man play All the Rage, and then into his memoir of the same name. One of the places his adventures took him was Johannesburg. In this passage, his Johannesburg tour guide, Tommy, gets them lost on the way to a cheetah preserve. The time Moran spends with him, listening to his life story and visiting his home, turns out to be a richer experience. At the end, Tommy shows him the shack nearby where Nelson Mandela lived as a young law student.


Tommy and I were on the outskirts of Johannesburg, zooming past vacant lots and former gold mines on our way to a large cheetah preserve. It was our third day together and I was especially excited. This being Africa, I had to squeeze in a safari! I’d found out about a large animal preserve not far from the city that offered excursions promising large cats and wild dogs, zebras and ostriches and all manner of wildlife. Since I’d made my reservation for the tour, a vision kept washing over me—a perfect moment tripping upon primordial Africa, a glimpse of a nature-filled Eden.

I’d had good, full days with Tommy. We talked a lot. When I had called ahead from the States to line up a driver (which a friend strongly urged me to do), I’d said to the cheery South African lady from the tourist company, “I was hoping my driver might be someone who grew up in Johannesburg? I mean, who knows personally of the history. I want to have, I guess, a real sense of the . . .”

I fumbled, I recall, because what I was saying, or wanted to say, was that I’d like to be with a black guide. But to come right out with that felt somehow awkward.

“I understand,” she’d said. “You don’t want to just head off to a safari park. Right? Maybe a township or two, along with your shopping? I know just the guide, someone who will help you have an authentic experience.”

I liked Tommy from the moment I met him at baggage claim. He was there holding a sign with my name; it was such a comfort after twenty-two hours of flying. He was low-key and, though we were both timid at first, soon we were talking about his town, his family, his two kids. I loved watching him greet others as we moved through the city, his “Hey, Sister” or “Hey, Bah,” his kindly wave, his missing front tooth lending his grin a particular charm.

In our days together I had observed how Tommy’s sense of time seemed . . . well, elastic. One morning, when he was taking me around Soweto, he suddenly stopped the van, pulled over to the side of the road, and, without a word, jumped out. I watched as he dashed across the street to a vacant field between two relatively large houses (newer and fancier than the many shacks we had passed). A large pile of apparently unwanted items had been dumped there. Something had caught his eye. He started riffling through stuff as I worked at remaining patient. “When in Rome,” I heard myself say. After five or ten minutes he walked back to the van carrying two bound texts the size of Manhattan telephone books. He set them on the dashboard and we took off again. I picked one up. Basic Computer Languages. I glanced at the other. Programming Your Home Computer.

“You studying computers?” I asked.

“Could be,” was all he said. “Could be good.”

But on this day, thrilled to be on the way to my mini safari, his mellow sense of time was driving me crazy. We had been nearly two hours on the road and I suspected that we might be lost. When I asked about our direction (which seemed at odds with the one described to me on the phone when I booked the safari) Tommy was tranquility itself. I kept pointing at road signs saying, “Tommy, are you sure this is right?” He nodded and said,

“No worries man. That place is by a bridge over a river where my father used to take me.”

Go easy, Marty; go with the flow, I told myself. Be the mellow explorer, not the nervous New Yorker. I tried not to look at my watch.

After another quarter of an hour I pointed to another road sign.

“Tommy, I thought maybe . . . um, don’t we want to be on the highway much further to the south?” He shrugged.

Fine. What do I know? It’s Africa! But sweat was trickling down Tommy’s graying sideburns and I couldn’t contain my anxiety.

“Look, Tommy, it’s way late! Let me call the safari place.”

“Don’t worry, man.” Then he opened his phone, “Oh, sorry. Out of minutes.”

“What! No phone? Where are we?”

My stomach flipped. I am going to miss the animals! And I thought exactly what I’d say to the lady at the tour agency:

“I paid for this driver, this service, so that my trip would be efficient! Smooth. This is just crazy, unacceptable.

Finally I spotted a sign indicating our route number, and looking at the map I blurted,

“OK, Tommy. Jesus! This is wrong. Totally wrong. Pull over!”

We stopped on the shoulder of the road. It was desolate but for weeds, hills beyond with wildflowers. A Calvin Klein billboard. Tommy turned off the engine and I said,

“Please, look at this. OK?”

I scooted toward him and laid the map in his lap. I put my finger where I thought we were and then where we should be.

“See? See Tommy? Look at this!” I heard my voice, pinched and piercing. “You’re the driver, for God’s sake! We’re so off path. It says right here. Look.

He was nodding at the map, his nose moving closer but his eyes were sort of darting and . . . it hit me. And I saw him see that it hit me. He didn’t know how to read it. I leaned back, folded the map, my chest burning. Monster.

There was the wind, the clackety rasp of insects unknown to me.

He stared straight ahead and said,

“You, you people . . . your minds are organized. You see these things. I never got my mind . . . organized.”

Just be here, I kept thinking. Oh God, all this busyness, this hunt for sites to be devoured. Just here on the side of a road with Tommy, this gentleman who’s told me about his family and shared about his struggles with women, about his father, an important Zulu preacher whom he says he’s failed to live up to. This is it. Don’t need to be anywhere else, really. Just here, breathe.

“Tommy, I’m sorry I . . .”

He stopped me and said,

“You know in school they taught . . .” He grinned for a second. “They taught us to sweep. To mop. To clean shoes properly. Other peoples’ shoes.”

Open-bed trucks packed with peaches and people rushed by.

“I speak a good English. I used to stay up late listening to a British man on the radio. He had a good voice. I repeated whatever he said, over and over. But I never learned. . . .”

He looked out the window toward the hills. After a long while he said,

“You know, if you listen carefully, the spirits will tell you which plants and flowers will heal you.”

Then he said, “Hey. You want us to see my house?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

We turned and drove back to town past Soweto, past the church still pocked with bullet holes from the ’76 uprising and on toward the township of Alexandra. An explosion of color, a dense collection of houses/shacks, spigots for water at the end of narrow roads. Brightly dressed women sat on crates and on curbs watching as small children scurried in and out from between houses.

We turned and drove down what turned out to be Tommy’s street. He told me to roll up my window and lock the door. “And put your camera away. People can be crazy.” We stopped at an intersection where a group of young men were standing outside a small corner store. There was a counter with a few fruits and vegetables. They stared at me. I felt every bit the intruding gawker, the tourist who would be off to the airport soon with a computer full of photos and a bag full of souvenirs: carved wood from Soweto, a program from the Market Theater, a book about young Gandhi. We moved past a tight group of shacks. Tommy pointed to one. “It may be an ugly house, but someone beautiful lives inside.”

He parked the car behind a cement wall and locked the gate. His neighbor had a sparkling BMW there, next to an outhouse. “That’s my privy,” Tommy told me. “With running water. I’m lucky to have that.”

We sat in Tommy’s one room divided into two by a hanging blanket, drank a pungent tea. “It is hard to get sleep in the township,” he said. “Someone’s music, someone’s business. You hear it all.”

He explained that being a tour guide was a new job for him, part of a government program to get people to work, into new and better kinds of jobs. The tour van was on loan from the program. He was fortunate to have this house, he said, as it was sturdier than most. His father had built it. “He was a minister here. People liked him. He had many children. I don’t know what happened to me. I have only two.” He laughed and shook his head. “I didn’t get what he got, I guess.”

We sipped our tea.

“Can I show you something?” he asked.

We stepped outside past his outhouse onto a side road where a woman was selling a red-colored fruit. Tommy gestured over weeds to a shack set back from the road. A broom, half of its bristles torn away, leaned against the door.

“Look,” he said. “When he first came to the city, this is where he lived. He was a law student then.”

I knew instantly who. No matter race, age, or gender, everyone, it seemed, spoke with this tender awe of Mandela. We stood and stared at the door and Tommy said,

“He came out, after twenty-seven years in prison, and forgave. It’s enough to make you believe.”

“In what,” I asked. “God?”

Tommy laughed a little and said,

“In something. In whatever it is that allowed him to do that. A man,” he said. “A man did that.”


About the Author 

Martin Moran makes his living as an actor and writer in New York City. He has appeared in many Broadway and Off-Broadway plays, including Titanic, Cabaret, Bells Are Ringing, and Floyd Collins. He won a 2004 Obie Award for his one-man play, The Tricky Part, which New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley praised for the quiet victory of "rendering chaos with this kind of clarity." Moran continues to perform The Tricky Part all over the country.