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Honoring Nelson Mandela

December 6, 2013

Nelson-Mandela with children

St. Andrew’s joins the world in mourning the death of the great South African leader and human rights activist Nelson Mandela, a man described today by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town as “ a colossus of unimpeachable moral character of integrity, the world’s most admired and revered public figure.”

As a school dedicated to the proposition that education leads to spiritual, moral and ethical transformation and courage, St. Andrew’s drew strength and purpose from the example and spirit of Nelson Mandela.

For those of us who witnessed the strength, arrogance and power of the apartheid system, it seemed impossible either to imagine the destruction of the system or a peaceful resolution to the inevitable conflict to come.  Over 80% of South Africans lived under an exacting and meticulous system of control and authority; the imprisonment of Mandela for 27 years only seemed to emphasize the impossibility of change.  But slowly the world began to be moved by the plight, the struggle, the dreams of a new South Africa, and we began to see the possibility that a global protest and rejection of an outmoded and outrageous regime of racism. At the same time, we in America forced ourselves to look anew at the unfinished journey towards racial harmony and reconciliation in our own land.

Mandela went to jail as a man who had begun to turn to violence as the only weapon left to shake the power of apartheid, but he emerged 27 years later as a eloquent spokesperson for truth, reconciliation and peace.  Archbishop Tutu describes the transformation:

“In 1964, Mandela was sent to Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town as a militant guerilla leader, the commander-in-chief of the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto weSizwe, committed to overthrowing apartheid by force. When he emerged from prison in 1990, his eyes damaged by the blindingly-bright limestone quarries in which prisoners had been forced to crush rock, and having contracted tuberculosis as a result of prison conditions, he might have been expected to come out hell-bent on revenge and retribution. White South Africans certainly feared so. On the other side of the political spectrum, some of his supporters feared that after campaigners had lionized his role in the struggle, he might turn out to have feet of clay and be unable to live up to his reputation.

None of this would turn out to be so. Suffering can embitter its victims, but equally it can ennoble the sufferer. In Mandela’s case, the 27 years in jail was not wasted. Firstly it gave him an authority and a credibility difficult to attain in other ways. No one could challenge his credentials. He had proved his commitment, his selflessness through what he had undergone. Secondly, the crucible of excruciating suffering which he had endured purged the dross, the anger, the temptation to any desire for revenge, honing his spirit and transforming him into an icon of magnanimity. He used his enormous moral stature to good effect in persuading his party and many in the black community, especially young people, that accommodation and compromise were the way to achieve our goal of democracy and justice for all.”

Bill Keller writes in today’s New York Times that in 2007, Mandela responded to a question about why his imprisonment had not made him embrace hatred, violence and revenge – Mandela’s answer was “almost dismissive:”  “Hating clouds the mind.  It gets in the way of strategy.  Leaders can not afford to hate.”

It was Mandela who sought to master and teach the art of radical love, reconciliation and healing.  Tutu writes the following remarkable tribute:

“When freedom came in 1994 and he became president, instead of baying for the blood of those who had oppressed and ill-treated him and our people, he preached a gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation. He invited his white former jailer to his inauguration. He flew to a remote rural Afrikaner enclave, set aside as a refuge for those who could not stomach black South Africans ruling an undivided country, to meet the widow of the prime minister who was recognized as the architect and high priest of apartheid. He invited to lunch the prosecutor who had sent him to jail. And who in South Africa will ever forget the day at the rugby World Cup in 1995, memorably celebrated in the film, Invictus, on which he donned the Springbok rugby jersey of green and gold — formerly despised in the black community as a symbol of apartheid in sport — and inspired the team to victory, with tens of thousands of whites who barely five years earlier had regarded him as a terrorist, chanting in the rugby stadium, ‘Nelson, Nelson.'”

Perhaps Mandela’s most audacious decision as president was to use the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a way of exposing the ravages of the apartheid era in his country and as a brilliant way of expressing forgiveness and hope for a new South Africa.  The panel offered individual amnesty for anyone who testified fully on the crimes committed during the apartheid period.

On Wednesday evening at St. Andrew’s, I drew on a phrase written by Vinicio Riva, “empathetic solidarity.”  The concept honors Mandela’s vision that calls upon all of us to be allies and defenders of peace, equality, and justice in the world.

We thank God for the life, vision and legacy of Nelson Mandela.

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