The name of the Programme has been unexpectedly and triumphantly apposite in the nine years that the organization has worked in Zululand’s prisons. The ancient myth of the beautiful bird that immolates itself and then rises from the ashes has been told again and again in the prison programmes, in a thousand different contexts. It has been thoroughly appropriated in the telling of so many life-stories. It has been drawn, painted, and modelled in clay. In Family Conferences, it has very often become the mythic template by which families mould their own specific narratives.
This widespread public resonance with the myth may have several explanations. The most intriguing suggests that this ancient story, alien in cultural provenance, is potent beyond its thematic relevance. The story “speaks” to people about the universality of their predicaments in falling foul of the local law, resulting in incarceration. In other words, it is the fact of the myth deriving from a different age and culture that gives it its local symbolic power: if you come to understand that the story of your messed-up life is foreshadowed by the criminal actions and pedicaments of others in different cultures down the ages, in a significant way the burden of culpability and guilt is ameliorated, and you can set your mind upon a putative resurrection from the ashes of your life.
Those who name their programmes of social action by reference to the local vernacular (in the laudable pursuit of being “relevant”) miss this vital point. The name of a social programme should, in our view, suggest the universal human connections within the social and individual problems with which we all try to grapple. To be imprisoned with a total loss of liberty is a catastrophe for the human spirit, and this desolation should be connected to the unfolding human drama through all ages that prizes freedom above all other values.
For us, the Phoenix continues to be a wonderful symbol.