Neill Caldwell is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate magazine.
In August, 1989, I was visiting London and discovered that my hotel was around the corner from the South African embassy. One day I saw a large group of people protesting outside the gates of the embassy against the South African government’s racist system of apartheid. I joined the rear fringe of the demonstration, mainly for the novelty of it, and among the things we chanted that day was “Free Mandela!” Although I’d heard of Nelson Mandela the year before when a huge tribute concert was organized in honor of his 70th birthday, I can’t honestly say I really knew who he was.
I had only met one person from South Africa, a student journalist who interned at the North Carolina newspaper where I was working. She was white, but was in favor of lifting the harsh laws against people of color in her homeland; laws that made our “Jim Crow” laws in the South seem tame. I only had a couple of conversations with her about apartheid, but considered her viewpoint – a white person willing to give away absolute political control to the black majority population – to be very enlightened.
Six months after my 15-minute protest in London, Mandela was in the news as it became apparent that the government was about to free him from prison. I remember artists making sketches of what Mandela might look like, as there had been no photos of him published in the 27 years he had languished in prison. That was pretty remarkable. Who was this man so many people were interested in seeing?
I remember his release, walking toward the media’s cameras and into freedom and with a huge crowd behind him. What a moment that was.
His election as the first black president of South Africa was even more amazing. That the election process, with more than two dozen presidential candidates, came off without violence was notable enough. But that a former inmate, who had been labeled a “terrorist” by his own government, the U.S. and Britain, was now in charge of the government that he had long worked to overthrow? If it was a Hollywood script it would have been rejected as too unbelievable.
Mandela was a complex man, a militant who enjoyed gardening and ballroom dancing. He said he was blessed with his father’s “stubborn sense of fairness.” After his schooling, including being the only native African in his law school class, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), forming the political organization’s youth branch with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. Mandela proposed a change in tactics in the anti-apartheid movement. Previously the ANC had sought to further its cause by petitions and protests; Mandela felt these actions were insufficient, and proposed more proactive tactics such as boycotts, acts of civil disobedience and strikes.
After police fired on an ANC protest in 1960, killing 69 in what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre, Mandela went underground, obtaining the nickname “Black Pimpernel” in the press for being able to travel the nation while in disguise to organize actions again the government. Frustrated by the lack of progress, Mandela formed an even more radicalized group to perform acts of sabotage against military bases, power plants and transportation links. He was arrested in 1962, convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1964.
It is Mandela’s prison years that make him remarkable. Sent to Robben Island, prisoners worked at hard labor during the day, breaking rocks into gravel or quarrying lime. He slept on a straw mat in a 7 by 8-foot cell; allowed one visit and one letter every six months, and no newspapers. But despite this, “Mandiba” thrived. He learned the Africaans language to better communicate with his jailers. He studied Islam, and organized “the University of Robben Island” where prisoners taught their areas of special expertise to other inmates (the original “Ted Talks?”).
He was eventually released in 1990, declaring his commitment to peace and reconciliation with the white minority government. After his election as president, he saw reconciliation as his primary agenda. His idea of “the Rainbow Nation” meant that everyone was to be included as part of the new system. President Mandela met with senior figures of the apartheid regime, sometimes over tea, saying that “courageous people do not fear forgiving.” He created the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid by both the government and people of color, appointing Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chairperson. When his presidential term ended, he voiced his support for candidate Jacob Zuma, of the rival Zulu tribe, who was elected in a land side.
Finally, ten years ago at age 85 Mandela famously “retired from retirement” citing health reasons, telling the world “don’t call me; I will call you.”
There are qualities of his life that you could call downright … biblical. Certainly his “love your enemies” message resounds with Christians. Biographer Martin Meredith says he was always polite and courteous to everyone, irrespective of age or status, and often sought out the company of children or servants. Even while president, he insisted on making his own bed. He also liked to secretly drive a car with darkly tinted windows just to enjoy the pleasure of driving.
Mandela was far from perfect. He was a Marxist who learn much from the Communist activists he worked alongside, but did not become Communist himself because their atheism conflicted with his Methodist faith. Never a great public speaker, the content of his speeches, and his writing, are some of the most profound words of my lifetime. “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances,” he said.
The thing to take away from the life of Nelson Mandela is his attitude toward those who sought to oppress him, marginalize him and strip away his basic human rights. He forgave them.