Faith Works 12-14-13
A quarter-century ago in South Africa, and Newark
Tomorrow, on Sunday, Nelson Mandela will be laid to rest in South Africa, near the place of his birth and upbringing.
His journey took him from childhood nobility to adult revolutionary to mature statesman, with a long sojourn as Prisoner 46664 on Robben Island.
During that time as a prisoner, as black South Africans worked and campaigned and protested and fought for rights and representation, Mandela became a symbol, and a rallying point for the African National Congress (ANC), and for the global campaign against apartheid.
He served over 27 years in prison, at hard labor, while the work of liberation went on without him; without even his picture or his words, since the Afrikaner government decided to forbid pictures or more than minimal letters (and those to family only) from Mandela to anyone in the outside world.
It seemed at the time, let alone in retrospect, a silly and counterproductive strategy. They made more of a martyr of him than even execution might have done, while keeping a flame burning in the hearts of the ANC faithful that their "Tata," or "Father" would return to them.
Whatever the faults of Mandela's choices in pursuing justice and resistance to the whites-only government, his step was sure after entering prison. He said later that his strategy was to "reveal nothing, learn everything." Especially about his oppressors. He learned their hopes, their desires, and their fears: the guards and the government in power. They learned very little if anything about "Madiba," his clan name in Xhosa, except that he was determined to endure. And to learn.
For myself, growing up knowing Mandela only as a prisoner, I knew little myself about him, but I kept hearing about South Africa. And the more I learned, and going to hear speakers like Donald Woods and Allan Boesak, listening to their stories about people like Steven Biko and a long list of leaders dying in custody, coming to realize just how harsh life was in places like Soweto and the townships around Johannesburg, I knew one thing. Apartheid could not last, would not last. A system that disenfranchises 90% to let 10% rule and benefit while the excluded suffer and die: it wasn't going to last.
But just as certain to me, in the 1970s, was that when the apartheid regime in South Africa ended, it would be horrible and bloody and deadly, for blacks and whites both but whites, ultimately, would be crushed and excluded in their turn, much as we had already seen in Rhodesia. It was a tragic prospect to contemplate, but how else could it end?
So when it came to that Sunday morning in February of 1990, and the news came across the television set that F.W. de Klerk had released Mandela from prison without conditions, it was with a mix of fear and hope many of us found ourselves, in this country, focused intently on the story.
I was the associate pastor here in 1990 at Newark Central Christian, where I'm now back as pastor, and then still new and young enough to know that being late is not done by clergy on a Sunday morning, but my fear of getting in trouble was tugged at by my fear of the inevitable in South Africa. Was a bloodbath about to begin?
And then we saw him. Walking out of his imprisonment, greyed by the years, the faintest hint of a stoop after those decades breaking rocks, and that smile. Yes, there have been leaders with malign intent who could smile on the world stage, but not THAT smile. It was a smile at peace with itself, and with a promise of laughter to come. Mandela smile, and walked out of prison, and into a place time and circumstances and grace had prepared for him.
It was a place he could have ascended to, then released the whirlwind from. That, he did not do. He walked out among the nation's people, black and white, and he showed them a path through truth and reconciliation towards peace.
South Africa still, like America, needs more truth, and further reconciliation. We both seek peace at home and abroad. But the man they bury tomorrow started a living memory still inspiring those who saw it, we who had so little hope for peace.
May this poor tired world waiting for angels singing this Christmas season remember to be thankful for a smiling prisoner, and find good will for today in that memory.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him who has inspired you recently at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.