Reflections on Nelson Mandela
A hand-printed sign in a Community Center in Orlando East, Soweto, South Africa, in April of 1990, declared:
One day, child
Things will be different.
We will be free and have enough schools.
We will live and enjoy this
land as others do.
Tomorrow child, I promise.
When I saw it, I was traveling with a group of fifteen U.S. clergy, all but two of whom were African American. Drawn from across the country, each had been active in the anti-apartheid campaign. Our mentors and leaders were Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker and Canon Frederick Williams, co-chairs of the Religious Action Network of the American Committee on Africa—each already distinguished for his activism for civil and human rights.
Twenty-three years ago, February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. South Africa’s apartheid government had entered initial discussions with him and then finally agreed to negotiate with the African National Congress, whose goal was to create an inclusive, non-racial democracy.
Mandela had been imprisoned for 27 years: 18 years on Robben Island, then Pollsmoor on the outskirts of Cape Town, and then in Victor Verster prison in the countryside. On the day of his release, he attended a rally at the Cape Town City Hall, and then the next day went to Soweto. The day after that, 120,000 people celebrated with a rally at a Soweto soccer stadium. As he reported to all: he was out of jail, but he—and they—were not free.
Two months later, I was privileged to be part of a clergy group, invited by Rev. Frank Chikane of the South African Council of Churches. Why were we there? At first hand, we witnessed what we knew: Nelson Mandela’s release was not the end of the struggle, but only one more step in the long walk to freedom. Apartheid was yet to be dismantled.
On that trip and several occasions later, including at The Community Church of New York, I met Nelson Mandela. We were humbled when he welcomed us to his home in Soweto.
Much of his story is becoming familiar. Nelson Mandela is one of the truly extraordinary and fiercely loving leaders in human history. He is a proper subject for Theology and Spiritual Growth through biography.
What intrigues and lures me—and so many of us—is his journey… his evolution… his tenacity… his spirit and vision… his faith in human nature… not a vague affirmation, but a powerful witness to the best within us—even after having lived under the brutalities of a totalitarian state.
I commend to you Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (Little Brown, 1994). The last few pages are especially haunting. He writes, “the policy of apartheid created a deep and lasting wound in my country.” Yet, Mandela marvels that out of the brutality and oppression there arose amazing leaders of “extraordinary courage, wisdom and generosity”: the Oliver Tambos, the Walter Sisulus, the Chief Luthulis, the Yusef Dadoos, and so many more.
It is from these comrades in the struggle that I learned the meaning of courage. Time and again, I have seen men and women risk and give their lives for an idea.1
For an idea! Not wealth, pleasure, privilege… For an idea!
About his faith, Mandela writes that he “never lost hope that this great transformation would occur,” because of the “ordinary men and women of my country.”
I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. … [Human] goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.
This from a man who writes about his early years with honesty. He writes about himself as one who lived with too much pride and too little welcome for those of other tribes. He had great admiration for the colonial British education, and he acknowledges the elitism he felt because of his royal lineage. Mandela describes lying, stealing, and misleading his elders and mentors. He was awkward in matters of the heart. He calls himself a country boy and was often insecure as a youth and young man. Initially at college, he barely could use a knife and fork.
For a long time, he hated whites as a group. As an attorney, he was flamboyant, and as an activist, hot-headed, sometimes impulsive. He portrays himself as a dismal law student.
All of which suggests to me that none of us can dare give up on ourselves… nor forget the creative transformations that may await those who are open to life and to those who overcome their fears, their prejudices, and their ignorance.
The Making of the Man
Born July 18, 1918 in the southern part of South Africa in the Transkei region in a tiny village, Nelson Mandela grew up in royal lineage of the Xhosa tribe. He was the youngest of four sons, with three sisters; his father had three wives. He was not in line to be a tribal chief, but rather to be an advisor to those who rule. His father died when he was nine, after which he joined the household of a family friend who was a regent. His was a relatively privileged upbringing in rural Transkei that included attending Methodist church and their schools.
About his country childhood, Mandela recalls that he learned to stick-fight… a form of play with other boys… and he learned about fair play and to defeat opponents without dishonoring them—to not humiliate them. His life was defined by custom, ritual, and taboo.
In the household of the regent, he observed the meetings of the Great Place, the assemblies for all who wished to come when disputes needed to be resolved… a democracy for every voice. The regent led by listening first and seeking collective decisions reached by consensus, “together as a people.” This became a model of leadership for him.
In school, Mandela reports he did well through discipline, as opposed to cleverness. These English-modeled boarding schools led him, as he reports, to view “the white man not as an oppressor but as a benefactor.” He completed three years in two. His vision was to be an advisor to a Thembu king, and being of Thembu lineage made him special in his mind, “the most enviable thing in the world.”
He went on to college at age 19 and the next year entered University College of Fort Hare: a beacon for black South Africans who likened it to “Oxford or Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one.” He reports, “I had my heart set on being an interpreter or a clerk in the Native Affairs Department”… a civil service job that was a “glittering prize.” Among his extracurricular interests, Mandela played John Wilkes Booth in a play about Abraham Lincoln. He also had a passion for ballroom dancing.
Nelson Mandela became involved in student government and helped lead some student protests that ultimately resulted in his being suspended for a year because he refused to compromise on principle.2 Upon returning home, he discovered that his guardian had arranged a marriage for him, unbeknownst to him, to a young woman in love with a close friend of his.
These various conflicts led him to flee home for Johannesburg at age 23, with a variety of misdeeds and lies—which he came to see for what they were. He also, in time, received forgiveness from his guardian and was able to complete his bachelor’s degree by correspondence.
Living in Johannesburg’s Alexandra Township was a time of hunger, poverty (owning only one patched suit), apprenticeship in a law office, romantic relationships, enrollment in law school, and mentors who counseled him against politics. He was learning to be confident and self-reliant and “to stand upon my own two feet.”
Mandela reports that his political consciousness began to grow, and in August 1943, he participated in his first demonstration… a successful bus boycott over raised fares. It was for him inspiring and exhilarating to see effective mass action.
“I discovered for the first time people of my own age firmly aligned with the liberation struggle, who were prepared despite their relative privilege to sacrifice themselves for the cause of the oppressed.”
Nelson Mandela observes that his activism was a gradual evolution:
I cannot pinpoint a moment when I became politicized, when I knew that I would spend my life in the liberation struggle. To be African in South Africa means that one is politicized from the moment of one's birth, whether one acknowledges it or not. An African child is born in an Africans Only hospital, taken home in an Africans Only bus, lives in an Africans Only area, and attends Africans Only schools, if he attends school at all.
When he grows up, he can hold Africans Only jobs, rent a house in an Africans Only townships, ride Africans Only trains, and be stopped at any time of the day or night and be ordered to produce a pass, failing which he will be arrested and thrown in jail. His life is circumscribed by racist laws and regulations that cripple his growth, dim his potential, and stunt his life. This was the reality, and one could deal with it in a myriad of ways.
I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, ‘From henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people’; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.
Convening with Revolutionaries
On my initial visit to South Africa in April of 1990, one 24-hour period was particularly busy and radiant. On our second evening, we went to a community center in Soweto where we met a crowded room of activists and felt the courage, determination, and vision to resist the evils of apartheid. It was an illegal meeting that concluded with the singing of "N'kosi Sikelel'i Afrika," the anthem of the African National Congress, and then the three-fold, call-and-response chant:
(“Power!” … “To the People!”)
Early the next morning, we arrived at Nelson Mandela’s home in Soweto. He greeted us warmly and spoke with us for fifteen or twenty minutes in the tiny front yard of his house. He concluded with deep appreciation for all in the United States who had brought pressure to bear upon the American Congress to legislate economic sanctions. Those sanctions had made and continued to make a profound difference in the pace of change.
Nelson Mandela is what he appears. He is a calm, commanding soul, utterly dedicated to justice for his people without vengeance in his heart. He struck me as a revolutionary and a diplomat with a soul-force like that of Gandhi… a transcendent figure… utterly centered.
After that graced meeting with Mandela, we visited some of the other sections of Soweto with its crowded housing, shanty towns of tiny shacks with no electricity, running water, or plumbing for hundreds of thousands, polluted by clouds of smoke from coal and kerosene in late afternoon. We met again with community activists, who organized block by block.
Then, Archbishop Desmond Tutu paid us a surprise visit. We were not scheduled to see him until the next week in Cape Town. We then met with Walter Sisulu and other key members of the African National Congress, most of whom had been imprisoned along with Mandela on Robben Island. Later, we were back in Soweto for a social gathering at Archbishop Tutu's personal home and dinner with the Rev. Frank Chikane, who like Tutu once, was then General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches.
Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Desmond Tutu, Rev. Frank Chikane, and local activists… one after the other!
Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu in 1944 had all helped organize the Youth League of the African National Congress. The ANC itself had formed in 1912 and had been seeking to remove the color bar through nonviolent protests and petitions.
In 1948, the Afrikaner Nationalists—explicitly white supremacists—came to power and instituted the policy of apartheid with its even more strict subjugation of blacks, including:
forced removals under the Group Areas act;
the Population and Registration Act;
restriction of movement and breaking up of families;
skilled jobs reserved for whites;
inferior education imposed upon the "Bantu;" plus
police terror and political persecutions
In 1952, the Youth League—and Mandela especially—organized the Defiance Campaign that led to arrests of over 8500 individuals—Blacks, Indians, Coloureds, and a handful of whites.3 He and twenty other leaders were convicted and given nine-month suspended sentences. Nevertheless, they were still harassed and restricted by the government. In 1955, the Freedom Charter followed, along with arrests of Mandela and 155 others for high treason the next year. Ultimately, Mandela and the 29 others remaining of the accused were acquitted in the nearly five-year Treason Trial. It was during this period, while still free and able to practice law during recesses and postponements of the trial, that he met and then, in 1958, married Winnie Madikezela.4
In 1960, protests continued, especially following the Sharpeville Massacre, in which seventy-five police officers outside their station killed sixty-nine blacks and wounded at least 180 other persons, including women and children. Following the massacre, the ANC issued the call for an international boycott of South African goods. Government harassment and arrests continued; in 1961 Nelson Mandela went underground to avoid arrest. Violence by the government increased, and in December 1961, he with others formed the "Spear of the Nation" party within the ANC, saying that it was time to close the chapter on nonviolence. Along the way, Mandela studied writings of many, including revolutionary Che Guevara and underground militant Zionist Menachem Begin.
In 1962, Mandela helped direct the sabotage efforts that sought to destroy property and infrastructure, but not to harm persons. Finally he was captured in August of that year. He was given a life term for his different "crimes" against the state. While in prison, Mandela continued to call upon the government to legalize the ANC, to release his fellow political prisoners, and to grant one person-one vote political rights to all South Africans, Black, Indians, Coloureds and Whites alike.
The Unitarians in South Africa for the most part were not particularly bold in joining the resistance to apartheid. But in the fall of 1989, the new mayor of Cape Town, Gordon Oliver, a Unitarian, joined Archbishop Tutu in a protest march. And when Nelson Mandela greeted the people after his release the following February, he called Cape Town the city of the people's Archbishop and the people's Mayor.
In 1952, Rev. Donald Harrington, my predecessor as Senior Minister at The Community Church of New York (CCNY), helped organize support in the United States for the Defiance Campaign. This led to the creation of the American Committee on Africa, which became the leading anti-apartheid organization in this country. The Community Church housed its first offices in the 1950s, and later in the 1970s, its buildings were home for offices of the African National Congress (ANC).
A group from Community and other Unitarian Universalist churches (plus so many other faith groups in many cities across the U.S.) joined in civil disobedience at South African Consulates in the mid-1980s, in protest against apartheid and in support for the economic sanctions campaign. (During this period, I served on the Executive Committee of the Religious Action Network of the American Committee on Africa.) In April of 1990, I was invited to be part of the delegation I have described, and in June 1990, we at Community hosted a conference organized by the American Committee on Africa for anti-apartheid activists from across the country. Nelson Mandela made a personal visit to CCNY to thank the faith-based and secular activists. A few years later, I joined in the election monitoring in Soweto in April of 1994 with the first free, inclusive elections.
Having Sowed the Seeds of Democracy, the Harvest Begins
No single group or individual produced a democratic, inclusive, free South Africa—the accomplishment, like all revolutions, was a collective effort. In 1912, the ANC began its work. The Youth League took it in new directions in 1944. Allies in the U.S. organized in 1952. The 1955 Freedom Charter and so much more followed. The long walk to freedom continued over the years, and Nelson Mandela became the symbol and leader for a nation. In 1993, Nelson Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside South African president F. W. de Klerk.
The next year, 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president of the Republic of South Africa. Serving only one term, he helped structure the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions led by Archbishop Tutu that have offered steps toward healing. After leaving the Presidency in 1999, Mandela continued to be outspoken in his efforts to bring peace around the world. He engaged the genocide in Darfur, U.S. foreign policy toward Iraq, and, in acknowledging the deaths of family members, AIDS prevention in South Africa.
On April 9, 2005 the National Party, which had codified apartheid beginning in 1948, officially disbanded. The party had received less than 2% of the vote in general elections held the year before.
Nelson Mandela: a life of great transformations… expanding vision… ultimately a faith in what we can do together… that salvation is in the struggle… and that victories await those who decide to take action.
Heartache and grief and losses, and courage and joy… on the long walk to freedom … Freedom still distant for so many here and around the world who live amid heartless and systemic oppressions.
Nelson Mandela concludes his autobiography this way:
… the hunger for my own freedom became the greater hunger for the freedom of my people. It was this desire for the freedom of my people to live their lives with dignity and self-respect that animated my life, that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney to become a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband into a man without a home, that forced a life-loving man to live like a monk.
… I am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found that I could not even enjoy the poor and limited freedoms I was allowed when I knew my people were not free. Freedom is indivisible; the chains on anyone of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me….
It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. …The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.
When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.
… I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.
Life ends and life goes on. Much perishes, and love abides into each new day. Nelson Mandela’s life invites us, wherever we are and however we can, to continue the struggle.
For, “One day… Things will be different.”
1. All quotes from Nelson Mandela are taken from Long Walk to Freedom.
2. Richard Stengel describes a student protest about the quality of food (in which Mandela participated), leading to a boycott of the student council election by many of the students. Mandela was elected a member of the Students Representative Council, but was concerned by the lack of majority participation. Thus, he felt his election was not legitimate. When he expressed his concern to the principal, he was given the choice of serving or leaving the school. An older student (a nephew of his, who was in line to be a chief), whom he deeply admired and “idolized,” told him he should resign on principle. Mandela went to the principle who reiterated the choice of serving or leaving school. Mandela left school; Stengel reports, “In some ways, that decision set him on a lifetime of challenging authority.” As recalled in Mandela’s Way: 15 Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage (Crown/Random House, 2009): 108.
3. The 1950 Population Registration Act initially classified South Africans racially as Black, White, or Coloured (mixed race). Indians were added as a fourth class.
4. Throughout his autobiography, Mandela acknowledges with sadness that his commitment to the struggle did not allow him to have the family life he would have wished. It was a contributing factor to the failure of his first marriage to Evelyn Mase. Although he and Winnie Mandela divorced in 1992, he writes about her with great respect and appreciation. In 1998, he married Graça Machel, a Mozambican politician and international advocate for children’s and women’s rights.
Apartheid, Nelson Mandela, South Africa