RIP Nelson Mandela – Reflections on a life

Nelson Mandela is dead. RIP Tata Madiba, a great man.

It’s hard today even imagining the world as it was back in the 1980s and before, when apartheid was the hot topic on university campuses. In the car on the way to school this morning, my daughter asked ‘what’s apartheid?’ reminding me of my age (not a good topic!) as well as the huge change which has occurred since those years. Much associated with the work of Nelson Mandela. At Exeter where I attended, our student union voted to boycott Barclays Bank because of its connections to South Africa. As a result, the Barclays branch on campus was closed, the space given to a different business. I also remember singing with gusto the song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by The Specials. It contains the lyric, ’21 years of captivity, are you so blind that you cannot see?’ As it turned out, it was a full 27 years before Mandela was released from Robben Island. Yes, he was guilty of sabotage, helping to destroy some of South Africa’s infrastructure as part of the struggle. I remember a close relative of mine who described him back then as ‘a terrorist.’ His actions raise the intriguing moral dilemma, ‘when is it justifiable to act violently for a just cause?’ There would be few today who would begrudge him some justification in the light of what we now know about the policies of that apartheid state. I remember also attending a play in those days simply called ‘Biko.’ It followed the arrest, imprisonment and beating of Steve Biko, a fellow activist with Mandela, who faced injustice and eventually death at the hands of racist thugs in a Port Elizabeth cell. In South Africa, they called them policemen. The words of Jimmy Kruger, the then-minister of police are chilling to read even today: I am not glad and I am not sorry about Mr. Biko. It leaves me cold (Dit laat my koud). I can say nothing to you … Any person who dies … I shall also be sorry if I die.

And what about the day that Nelson Mandela was released? Blanket news coverage of the kind that only occurs with a royal birth, death or major disaster. He emerged heroic and determined to live well for his country. And of course, that is what marked him out as a great man. He did indeed face injustice with grace and dignity, but it was his actions after his release which set him apart from other world leaders. It is the reason why he is revered the world over as a modern day saint. What did he do? Teach, preach forgiveness. Work for reconciliation. This is a path which Christians recognize and which resonates deep in our souls. Reconciliation is a major theme not simply in our lives but in the Bible, a book about the means by which God becomes reconciled to man. I have found it more than a little curious listening to the news presenters this morning talking about reconciliation. They recognize it as a wonderful thing, but for the life of them, they don’t really understand it. You can hear it in their voices. The world as a whole doesn’t operate in such a way. The capacity to forgive an oppressor is seen mostly clearly, of course, in the Lord’s passion. His words, which resound through the centuries, are still with us, faithfully recorded by the gospel writers. Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do. Even as he suffered for us, he possessed the ability to reach out to those whose only thought was evil and cursing. Mandela, in our time, followed a similar path and for that we are grateful. He reminds us of our God.

These past few months, we have also been celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, a similar historical figure to Nelson Mandela. His letters from Birmingham jail have been variously discussed and debated. He too charted a course of reconciliation, yet was denied the opportunity to see out the mature fruits of his work. The struggle against injustice achieves a very great and noble goal. It reminds us that in our time of post-modern wishy-washy ‘whatever you think is right for you is right for you’ thinking, that there exists good and evil. Right and wrong. No, it is not context which defines good and evil. It is absolute whether it fits your ‘don’t want to offend anyone’ philosophy or not. In South Africa, there was no room for relativistic nonsense. The stories of Mandela and King are stories, quite frankly, about the triumph of good over evil. No, I don’t mean that these leaders were perfect, I mean that their cause was right and good. It is right that black and white should be treated equally, for human beings are created by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. The American Constitution is right. We did not invent this. It is discovered by us; it comes from God. It is also wrong to oppress an entire racial group on the basis of skin colour. That is categorically wrong and if you disagree, then while you are entitled to your opinion, you happen to be mistaken. Profoundly mistaken. White oppression is wrong. We feel it. We know it. It is discovered intuitively. We love to see good triumph over evil and we cannot stop telling stories about it. It is in our movies, in our books, on TV. It is everywhere. It is the longing of our hearts. And it’s not a surprise, since our longings are derived from the greatest story of them all, the triumph of good over evil by our God. This is why Mandela’s story stirs not simply Christians, but all men and women. We all know inside that when good triumphs over evil, we are witnessing a story which echoes our heart’s desire.

Mandela’s legacy is rich but there is one final comment worth making. In spite of all the good will in the world, he was unable to solve South Africa’s woes. South Africa is still awash with injustice and poverty. He could lead his nation but he certainly could not save it. He could inspire it, but he could not change the human heart. His family, who surrounded him at his death, were already engaged in bickering over his legacy, even before he had passed away. He could not change the hearts of his nearest and dearest and he certainly could not prevent the infighting which has dogged the ANC since his retirement. His country still suffers. It still needs saving, as we all do. Human beings, even inspirational ones like Nelson Mandela, can only highlight our desperate need for a Saviour. We cannot save ourselves. We long for a day when all racial hatred is ended, when peace and reconciliation are not simply assigned to a commission, but reign in the hearts and minds of all humankind. So his deficits, his inability to effect change in the way he would have wished, is a signpost to a greater truth, a truer hope. That no human being can save us. Mandela was a great man, a super . . . man; but he was no Superman. We need a bigger man, a greater man than him. At Christmas, we remember him as the baby in the manger. Immanuel. God with us, our Saviour, who has the power to change human hearts and bring about true and lasting reconciliation. And one day, he will bring about the full restoration of his beautiful creation, when good will finally triumph over evil, and there will be no more torture cells in South Africa and no more whips in cotton fields, when tears will run no more and the agony of our world will be a distant memory.

If it is a memory at all.

We celebrate that Hope this Christmas.

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