The early 1990s was a revolutionary time in Mzansi[1]. Thirty years ago, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was released from prison on 11 February after twenty-seven years of wrongful imprisonment, paving the way for negotiations that would result in a new Constitution. We, the people, took back this beautiful country of ours in an odds-defying, (mostly) peaceful, first democratic election in April 1994. Apartheid[2] was finally being wiped off the statutes. It was the beginning of a long, incomplete journey of change to right the wrongs of the Apartheid regime, and a time filled with hope for reconciliation, justice, freedom and a Rainbow Nation[3] united in diversity.

Entire theories have been devoted to the art and science of change: why we change, how we change, what we change, when and where we change. The underlying assumption of most theories is that change is good, has an identifiable goal, and thus an end point of sorts – something to strive for or achieve. As a young postgraduate student of Psychology at the Nelson Mandela University[4] in 1994, I was convinced that change – whether large- or small-scale, and whether pursued as a society, a country, a community or an individual – required deliberate and concerted physical, mental, emotional and often spiritual effort. I believed that, in the tradition of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and many other liberation leaders, there was no progress, and no lasting legacy, without struggle. Change required the conviction that it was possible and inevitable, and embarking on a quest for change was certainly desirable, or at the very least noble.

Over time, the more seasoned researcher and avid student of life within me have challenged my youthful beliefs about change and, therefore, those beliefs have themselves changed. Several complicating empirical truths have emerged, as I observed that even the most careful and intensive effort does not necessarily lead to change. Change takes time, but the passing of time does not ensure change. Change is sometimes impossible, and alas, not inevitable (especially) in the ways that matter most. Change is not always needed and does not always have a purpose, and the purpose of change is not good by default. Also, because change is perpetual, when big changes happen there is usually no agreed, discernible starting point until hindsight gives us 20-20 vision, and no endpoint where a definable goal is achieved, completely.

To better understand change, I think of people and things as unique jigsaw puzzles. Of course, that means communities, countries, or societies are also unique puzzles. At any scale, the evolution of animals, minerals and vegetables on this earth (and probably in the rest of the universe) appears to be a composite result of building all of these unique puzzles.

The jigsaw puzzle metaphor has the advantage of offering a somewhat removed perspective, away from the messiness that is everyday life – a self-analysis trick I employ as often as possible – allowing one to look inward and outward with more of an outsider perspective. But the jigsaw puzzle that is life is not like the classic John Spilsbury of London[5] store-bought, two-dimensional or the more contemporary three-dimensional kind…

A life-puzzle can have just one piece, but the number of pieces can also be infinite. Most of us probably start out as a simple two-piece puzzle containing a single image which is made up of primary colours. As we learn and experience life, we add pieces, and mix and add more colours. Each puzzle piece can vary in size – some are even larger than life – and each piece can contain varying levels of complexity. Some puzzles are more complex at birth than others, with additional pieces, images or colours related to, for example, health challenges or genetic alterations or exceptional abilities. Some start off with small puzzle pieces, but do not stay that way.

With jigsaw puzzles as with life, some are built on smooth surfaces, making it easy to put the pieces together. However, some are built on rough surfaces, requiring more effort to place the pieces where they should be or where they would work best. If the surface I am building on is too small, pieces fall off the edge, and some of these fallen pieces are lost forever. Other surfaces are too large, edging the puzzle out of reach, so a separate section of the puzzle, or sometimes an entirely new puzzle, is started in the space within reach.

In life, most puzzles are built by anything from one to (too) many puzzle builders, who search for, choose and pick up pieces, sometimes at random, to add to the puzzle as the image forms, develops, expands, and every so often contracts. The outside edges of the puzzle can be flush in some places, providing familiar structure and the solace of limitations, and open in others so that there is no fixed border forcing builders to stay within a frame. The puzzle pieces have loops and sockets, but the more fragmented and varied the pieces, the more effort it takes to put together.

The pieces can be part of a simple image or a complex work of art, and part of one or multiple images, intertwined with those of other puzzles. It is no wonder that the puzzles we build in life are sometimes abandoned altogether, and a new puzzle is attempted that does not resemble the last one (at least not in our conscious minds). The vision I was once building towards can change in part, or I can abandon one vision entirely and start building another, as many times as I like. Even if I frame what I think is a completed puzzle, there is always the potential for building another. Though most toy-store jigsaw puzzles can be completed over two or three days, life-puzzles (thankfully) take more time and, for most of us, remain unfinished.

A living puzzle is quantum-mechanical and infinite-dimensional – a world of infinite possibilities where I am building a puzzle without the box that has the final image on it. The building surface, the builders, the edges, the pieces, the images can all change. What I want to change might not realise, despite my best intentions and efforts, as some changes will be planned and within my control, while others will be unplanned, seemingly random, out of my control, or initiated by others. Some changes will be good for me, and some changes won’t. Some changes will be good for many, and bad for some.

The revolutionaries who lead the struggle for regime change in South Africa could not have guaranteed instant empathy or liberty or equality for every person in South Africa, but that did not stop them and still today does not stop us from pursuing these ideals.

I have accepted that the perfect puzzle and building process do not exist, and that the picture I am building, which is part of the picture that South Africa is building, cannot be predetermined or defined with significant certainty, or at least not in its entirety – life is not about replicating an image on a box. However, for all its complexity, it is nevertheless not unthinkable or impossible to keep on building. If I can show gratitude for that which can and does change (for better or worse) and appreciate that which cannot or does not change, I can embrace the miracle of building a living puzzle that never loses its potential for, and capacity to change, that does not have to be completed, or complete.

Isn’t change (and building puzzles) just magical…?

The moment in between what you once were, and who you are becoming, is where the dance of life really takes place (Barbara De Angelis)

Copyright © Leonie Vorster 2020

[1] Mzansi is the colloquial name for the Republic of South Africa. Mzansi is derived from the isiXhosa word umzantsi that means south. isiXhosa is one of the eleven official languages of South Africa.

[2] Apartheid was the system of government in South Africa from 1948 to 1994, a regime underpinned by statutory, institutionalised segregation based on race classification in all spheres of South African society.

[3] Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, an anti-apartheid and human rights activist, coined the term Rainbow Nation to describe post-apartheid South Africa.

[4] From 1964 until 2005, the Nelson Mandela University was known as the University of Port Elizabeth, referring to the city on the southern coast of South Africa where the university is located, in the Nelson Mandela University Nature Reserve.

[5] John Spilsbury is credited with commercialising the jigsaw puzzle, which started out as a picture painted on a wooden block that was then cut into pieces, around 1760.

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