MandelaYesterday evening (as if anyone could not already know this), the world learned of the death of South African political-activist-turned-president Nelson Mandela, who passed away aged 95 after a long struggle with a lung infection.

Predictably – and, I might add, justifiably given his stature – the internet and social media have been alive with news and comment about Mandela’s life and legacy today. There’s probably little of substance that I can add to what’s already been said, but I thought it would be appropriate to offer a few thoughts of my own.

I first heard Mandela’s name on the radio when I was a teenager in the 1980s; for a long time, I had little idea who he was, what he stood for or why he was such an important figure. It was only really after the fall of the apartheid regime and the establishment of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that I began to understand his significance. However, while few would deny the crucial role he played in engineering a peaceful transition to an inclusive democracy, there always remained questions over his past affiliations, and in particular his involvement in a militant group known as MK, which led a sabotage campaign against the apartheid government that resulted in significant numbers of civilian casualties. It was, of course, this association that landed him in prison in 1962; he would not emerge until 27 years later.

Broadly speaking, the reactions I’ve seen on social media to Mandela’s death range from one extreme to the other. While many have been content to commend his achievements, some seem to have accorded him almost godlike status, while others have harked back to his militant days and expressed their frustration at such accolades being heaped upon a “terrorist” and a “murderer”.

This, sadly, is one of the curses of today’s world of instantaneous mass communication: everyone’s an expert, and we are quick to place people and events into convenient black and white categories. Everyone is good or bad, with us or against us, to be idolised or to be despised. And we are quick to rally round those who share our views and to shout down those who have a different perspective.

In truth, the world is rarely, if ever, as simple as we would like it to be (or as the media often portray it). People are complicated, and countries and their history are hugely complex.

Let’s be realistic: Mandela was undoubtedly a man with many faults, and who made many mistakes and errors of judgement, some more grievous than others. How do I know that? Easy: I only have to look into the darker corners of my own heart and my own past to know it. Those who would continue to hold the charge of violence and bloodshed over Mandela’s head perhaps need to adopt a somewhat more nuanced and realistic perspective on the history of the man and the nation he came to stand for.

Earlier today, I had a fascinating conversation on Facebook with a South African friend now living in the UK. With her permission, I share the following unedited comments (emphasis added):

While violence should never be condoned, it is important to be aware of the context in which this violence occurred. In the South Africa I grew up in, blacks were not allowed to live in “white” areas, and had to carry a “pass” in order to be allowed in an out of “white” areas. Many had their homes bulldozed, and were forced to live only in areas designated by the SA government. This meant that families were often torn apart, and people were removed from communities they had grown up in. There were different benches at bus-stops and other public places for “Europeans” and “non-whites”. If you had black friends, there was pretty much nowhere you were allowed to hang out together. It was unlawful to have an interracial relationship. Schoolchildren were forced to learn Afrikaans, which they regarded as the language of the oppressor. Many regarded blacks as “dirty”, and it wasn’t unusual for black employees, like maids, to have a tin plate and mug at their workplace, which was for their exclusive use, so as not to “contaminate” the household crockery! The mining town I lived in for some years had a 9pm curfew, when all the black mine workers had to be off the streets. There was plenty of violence by the SA Police towards black people, often for really petty “offences”, and beatings in police custody were fairly common. White people who were sympathetic to the plight of blacks in SA were likewise targeted, receiving death threats and hate mail, and in some cases, assassinated.

[…] It’s easy for me to say that violence is wrong, but I was growing up on the privileged side of the fence, and never experienced any of the nazi-like treatment meted out to black people. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have harboured equally violent thoughts and intentions towards the apartheid regime. There were other people involved in decisions to use violence, besides Mandela, so I am loathe to say it was all his doing, because it wasn’t, and there were other players in the ANC besides him. When he was released from prison, and became President, he could so easily have unleashed all sorts of retribution towards whites, but he didn’t. The fact that it was in his power to do so, but instead chose to encourage peace and reconciliation between races, is what made him stand out as a leader. Those were pretty fearful times, we were really uncertain of how things were going to turn out, but it was all calm and “okay”, even positive! And we were so thankful. (I do have to mention though, that President F. W. De Klerk, who preceded Mandela, played an equally important role in the peaceful transition, a fact that is often overlooked. He helped to allay the fears of White South Africans over that period. He and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.)

Yes, violence formed part of Mandela’s history, but before we condemn him, there are two things we must remember: first, as my friend points out, he was not alone – the ANC’s and MK’s actions were undoubtedly the result of a complex web of interactions, decisions and consequences; and second, it’s hard for us to imagine what it was like to live under such oppression, and to know that all lawful avenues for dissent had been closed off. In such circumstances, people sometimes resort, in their desperation, to extreme measures. To recognise this is not to condone violence – it is simply to acknowledge reality.

Let us also not forget that God is slow to anger and quick to forgive. Where would any of us be if the record of all our wrongs hung over our heads and formed the last word over our entire lives? The Apostle Paul was, by his own admission, actively involved in murder, yet he went on to be the first great missionary and the man who shaped the early church.

My friend goes on:

I’m sure he was a deeply torn man – he had loyalties that went way back, but he also had responsibility for the nation’s well-being. He was the first to admit that he was flawed, and had made mistakes. But somehow he managed to win the affections and respect of people who had hated him, who wished him dead – that’s no easy task.

Whatever mistakes Mandela made in those pre-prison years, one thing is clear: in spite of having spent 27 years locked in a cell, and in spite of whatever resentment and burning anger he might have felt, upon his release he chose to invest every ounce of his energy in reconciliation. Perhaps he had a change of heart while in prison and came to regret some of his earlier tactics; I don’t know. But if “finishing well” and leaving a positive legacy are at all important in life, Mandela surely has something to teach most of us.

Nelson Mandela was not a man who went around blowing his religious trumpet, but he was a man who professed faith in God and in the redeeming work of Christ. But what he said about his faith doesn’t matter much. The Bible teaches that a man is known by his fruit, and that we are called to be ministers of reconciliation. On both these counts, it’s hard to argue that Mandela was not a man who did God’s work and advanced His kingdom.

So my prayer is that we may set aside our pet prejudices, our hasty conclusions and our polarised views; that, instead of being quick to criticise, we might drop our swords; that we may put down the pedestals on which we so often place our heroes; that we might recognise both the flaws of this man and the fire that burned in his heart for a people and a nation; that, finally, we may thank God that He chooses to use ordinary men and women – black or white, young or old – to bring about peace, justice and reconciliation.

And let us also pray that South Africans of all backgrounds and all political persuasions will find it in themselves to be worthy of the legacy Mandela has left them. It would be a tragedy indeed if the long road to freedom walked by Mandela and so many others were squandered.

So rest now, brother Nelson. You have many critics, and many more will rightly applaud you. But how many will dare to follow in your footsteps?

[ Image: Ted Eytan ]