Reflections on Mandela

“Have you heard that Mandela died?” The staggering impact of this question took my breath away as I stepped into the office after teaching a full day of classes at Eastern Mennonite University on Thursday, December 5th. I texted my daughter who had grown up in South Africa, with these simple words, “Wow – this is huge!” Mourning the enormous loss of Mandela has evoked memories of living in South Africa from 1994 to 2009.

During my first two of 16 years living in South Africa, I was privileged to shadow a great mentor, Morontshi Matsobane, who spent 14 years in the prime of his life (ages 26-40) in prison for his political activity – 12 of those years were spent on Robben Island with Mandela.

Morontshi was released in 1990, just three months after Mandela. Shedding bitterness and hate, he immediately returned to the community organizing and development work that put him in prison to begin with. I observed Morontshi patiently mediate peace and security needs in a transitional period marred by violence as the country struggled for its dignity and the equal redistribution of land, labor, and livelihoods. In many of these negotiations, he was interacting with the very apartheid ‘security’ apparatus responsible for his harassment, arrest and eventual imprisonment. Morontshi is one of the most gracious, forgiving and kind souls I know. He is one of many persons who we called a “little Mandela” – and there were many like him.

As the example of Morontshi demonstrates, Mandela and his ways have taken root in the collective psyche of South Africa and have changed much of the world’s psyche. He embodied what it meant to live with integrity and with few regrets. Indeed, his leadership presence seemed to be encoded with the moral fiber that now guides conceptions of good governance and just polity at a global level. Mandela transmitted his DNA to us. And herein lies the hope.

While Mandela rarely articulated his faith in the public discourse, he has alluded to the critical influence of his Methodist missionary education, as well as to that of icons of nonviolent justice and reconciliation like Gandhi, MLK (and others) and their transformative movements. In a deeply spiritual, almost covert way, Mandela represented a kind of incarnational presence that showed us what practical theology really looks like. Mandela was not only a political revolutionary – he was a spiritual subversive in his application of reconciliation. Refusing to be bound by tangible-intangible bifurcations, Mandela infused the spirituality of reconciliation into the realpolitik of his time and context in ways that few others would have ever dared to.

Mandela was convinced that when you insert acts of reconciliation into the “zero-sum” game of political realism, you alter the state of the world. Indeed, Mandela internalized the Jesus ethic of “enemy love” in a visceral, commonsensical manner, one that eluded many of the prominent Church and diplomatic leaders around him. This, I believe, is one of his greatest legacies. Among much to be learned from Mandela’s life are these four lessons:

1. Mandela understood that reconciliation was personal.

I recall a transformative story that exemplified this in a beautiful way. During the early years of Mandela’s presidency his grandson lived with him. As the story goes, one day this grandson and his best friend (a white neighbor boy) were playing on a delivery motorcycle that had been left standing idle in the driveway of the Mandela home. The motorbike fell toppled onto the white boy, who was rushed to the hospital with a broken leg. When Mandela learned of the accident, he promptly telephoned the mother of this boy and inquired into his well-being. Mandela then cleared his presidential schedule and come with his grandson to visit her and her son that same day. The mother of the boy spoke of flurrying about her house cleaning up in a panic as the “president of the country” was coming to visit her in a few hours!

Word has it that Mandela and his grandson spent two hours sitting on the floor playing with the young neighbor, now in a cast. What important presidential obligations were sacrificed in this simple but powerful act of kindness we will never know, but that is precisely the point – it doesn’t matter in light of the reconciliation transaction that needed to occur at that time, in that place, with that black president, his grandson and the white neighbors.

2. Mandela understood that reconciliation was political.

Borrowing from feminist thought, Mandela refused to separate the “personal from the political” (a term popularized by Carol Hanisch, 1969). South Africans will never forget when President Mandela insisted on having tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the notorious Afrikaner prime minister of South Africa (1958-1966) who had the dubious honor of being dubbed the “architect of apartheid.” Verwoerd’s widow was at that time in her mid-90s, living in an exclusive Afrikaner home for the elderly in the Free State Province. Mandela, against tremendous opposition – even outright scorn from both black and white South Africans from all political divides –flew in his state helicopter to sit down and have a cup of tea with the widow of the man who was ultimately responsible for imprisoning Mandela for 27 years.

Mandela’s resolve was clear in his statements to the press after this momentous visit. His basic message was: by these actions I am showing all South Africans what I mean by reconciliation, and how such gestures will shape the New South Africa – black and white co-existing in freedom, liberated to live together with dignity and harmony.

3. Mandela understood that reconciliation and justice are inseparable.

I was struck by a story told by Mandela’s long-time friend and fellow prisoner on Robben Island, Ahmed Kathrada, a South African of Indian descent. Ahmed described how even the treatment of the political prisoners was imbued with structural racism. When first arriving on the island, the black prisoners were issued short pants (in African traditional culture these are for boys, not men), while the other race groups were given long trousers. On top of this, the other race groups got some bread with their food (10 years before the black prisoners got any bread). Ahmed and others objected to this unfairness, yet Mandela insisted that they continue to accept the bread. Why? Because Mandela understood that if they refused such basic sustenance in the cause of solidarity with the black prisoners, all race groups would remain equally oppressed. In Mandela’s mind, if Ahmed and the other prisoners insisted that bread was food to which all prisoners were entitled, all would eventually have to be given bread. Mandela was proven right.

4. Mandela understood that the arc of the universe bends in the direction of reconciliation.

Mandela’s life mirrored the paradoxical call of Jesus proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is grounded in a mystery, an eternal timelessness – it is both very present and at the same time, yet to come. In the midst of tremendous pain and suffering, discouragement and isolation, Mandela never lost sight of the “horizon of reconciliation” (a term used by Juan Gutierrez of the Basque Country). Many great figures in history have eloquently cast a vision of future hope in the midst of turmoil and despair. However, only the exceptional leaders are able to live into that future reality in the here and now. Mandela was one of those few.

Early in his prison confinement, Mandela became determined to redeem the time. He focused on being an abiding presence in the now – pouring into the lives of those who surrounded him. These included the many political prisoners who were influenced by his wise tutelage (“Mandela’s University,” as it was affectionately called), and his multiple prison warders, who all eventually became his friends and allies.

As shown by the examples of Morontshi, Ahmed, and even the former prison warders, Mandela’s DNA is deeply personal and political, it gives us the boldness to speak truth to power, to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). It is contagious.

–Carl Stauffer, co-author of this blog, completed his PhD at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, toward the end of 16 years of transitional justice work in South Africa, under the auspices of the Mennonite Central Committee. His latest publication is Acting Out the Myths: The Politics of Narrative Violence in Zimbabwe (Lambert Academic, 2011).

2 comments on “Reflections on Mandela”

  1. Dear Carl:

    I needed your insights on Mandela. Thank you. It has enriched my perspective of this historic man, and you.


  2. Thanks, Charito.

    Rohit – The connection between Gandhi and South Africa was/is profound. Gandhi’s vision has clearly impacted multiple generations in South Africa. The spirit of Satyagraha remains as a critical backdrop to any reconciliation success that South Africa has experienced!

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