The Less Easy Route: A Tribute to Nelson Mandela

November 1, 2009

Glynn Cardy

All Saints' Day

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Having been brought up as a skeptical protestant I didn’t think saints were of much use. They seemed to be idealized figures from the early centuries of Christendom that some wanted to venerate. Their shortcomings were ignored. A good dose of historical realism was needed.


Yet, on the other, heroes and heroines have at their best had the capacity to lift our vision, to invite us to dream of the impossible, and urge to get off our backsides and give it a go. At their best they can reach out across time and culture to encourage our faith.


Most of the traditional saints, when viewed with historical-critical tools, are less than inspiring. By modern standards many would need the support of the mental health services. Unconstrained by religious convention however we can think about ‘saints’ more broadly as those who encourage and inspire us in our faith.


Personally I find it hard to go past Nelson Mandela. He is a modern exemplar of perseverance, courage, humility, and reconciliation. He’s also someone who would be appalled by the honorific of ‘saint’ being attached to his name. He has never walked the path of self-glorification that Brian Tamaki, and others before him, thinks is the route to spiritual wisdom.


As I lift my eyes there on one of our office walls hangs Nelson’s picture. It commemorates the time he stood here in the pulpit of St Matthew’s and thanked those New Zealanders who tried to stop the South African rugby team touring in 1981. It was one a great moments that has blessed this place. His cheeky grin continues to be a blessing. 


Nelson was born in 1918 in the Transkei. Groomed for high office he was sent off to a Wesleyan secondary school. “Without the church,” he once said, “I would never have been here today. We grew up at a time when the government of this country owed its duty only to whites. It took no interest whatsoever in our education.”


Mandela began a university education but was suspended for joining in a protest. It was while studying for a law degree that he joined the African National Congress. In 1944 he was part of a small group who set themselves the task of transforming the ANC into a more radical mass movement. It was this group that inspired the ANC conference to adopt the strategies of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non-cooperation.


Nelson had exceptional organizational abilities that came to the fore in 1952 when he travelled the country organising a mass civil disobedience campaign. Also in that same year he opened with Oliver Tambo the first black legal practice in South Africa. 


Two qualities of leadership are very apparent in this period. They are firstly a passion for the plight of his people. Through his legal practice and his travels he heard time and again of the misery and oppression that apartheid foisted upon them, and he felt that deeply. Secondly, Nelson was willing to fearlessly stand up for what he believed was just and right and to suffer the consequences. 


In the 1950s he was banned, arrested, and imprisoned numerous times. In 1960 the ANC was outlawed. Mandela was now the leading figure in the movement. He continued to speak out against apartheid. He lived evading the police via constantly travelling and using disguises – and hence he was nicknamed ‘the Black Pimpernel’.


Around this time the ANC started preparing for an armed struggle. As Nelson said, “It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.”


In 1962 Mandela was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. However the length was later increased to a life sentence for sabotage. Throughout all his trials Mandela used the opportunity to proclaim his message. In 1964, for example, he said, “I have fought against white domination. I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society... It is an ideal which I hope to live for [and] an ideal which I am prepared to die for.”


Nelson spent nearly 27 years in prison, most of it on Robben Island. He and his colleagues were subjected to hard labour and dehumanizing treatment. Yet prison had a spiritually maturing effect on him preparing him for the reconciling tasks he was ultimately to accomplish. He read widely, particularly on religion. Any arrogance and self-righteousness fell away, while perseverance, patience, and compassion ripened. As Mandela later said, “to appreciate the importance of religion, you have to have been in a South African jail under apartheid, where you could see the cruelty of human beings…”


In those 27 years the authorities tried to make Nelson into a non-person. He could not be quoted, no pictures of him were allowed, and it was hoped that he would disappear into the limbo of amnesia. But he became instead the world's most famous political prisoner, an unassailable icon of struggle against racial injustice.


When it was eventually decided that he would be released unconditionally, there were fears that the country would erupt in turmoil. But although there was overwhelming reason for him to be a bitter and aggressive person, the years in prison had changed him. On emerging from prison he defined the task he had set himself as one of “reconciliation, of binding wounds of the country, of engendering trust and confidence.”


Nelson was released from prison in 1990, elected President of the ANC in 1991, oversaw the end of apartheid in 1994, and was elected President of a democratic South Africa in the same year.


There is physical courage and there is spiritual courage. Physical courage is facing the possibility of pain, weighing the consequences, and yet still proceeding. Nelson did this time and again in the 1950s and 60s. Spiritual courage is harder to define. When you are losing – being physically, mentally, and emotionally assaulted – it is tempting to give up and get out. It is not easy to persevere. Similarly when one is winning – receiving accolades and expectations of those for whom one is a champion – it is not easy to be humble, magnanimous, and forgiving towards one’s enemies. Mandela chose these less easy routes. This is what I mean by spiritual courage.


It also took enormous spiritual courage to come out of prison and walk the path of reconciliation. The white man’s fear was always that if he took his foot off the black man’s neck then the black man’s foot would soon come down on his own. That didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because the black leadership of South African, and here I include others like Desmond Tutu, had the courage to walk the path of reconciliation. In this respect, and in many others, Mandela has followed the example of Jesus to whom he gave his allegiance in a high school many years ago.

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