South Africa happens to be one of my favorite countries. This was not always the case but when I went there for the first time in 2006 I was instantly impressed with the energy and optimism of its people and their sense of pride in a country liberated from the evil and dehumanizing clutches of Apartheid. Seeing people of all colors and backgrounds eating together, playing together and just hanging out together brought a lump to my throat and strengthened my faith in the fact that there remained some goodness in the heart of man despite his sinful nature and capacity for committing acts of unspeakable evil.
Nelson Mandela has been accorded a status by most South Africans akin to that of a Messiah. His massive statue in Mandela Square (formerly Sandton Square) helps the visitor to the country understand the enormous admiration that his people have for him for having removed from them the stain of forced racial separation and the curse of extremely limited prospects for Blacks. South Africans spoke, and still speak, of Nelson Mandela as one would speak of a beloved grandfather or a favorite uncle.
I had heard about Mandela from childhood but did not at that time understand the struggle in which he was involved. Age brought greater understanding of that struggle. However, it was not until I read his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, which was given to me as a Christmas present in 1995, that I was able to fully appreciate the nobility of his character and the magnitude of what he had done for his country. I devoured the over 1000 pages of this tome in less than a week, missing some of my meals and certain family activities in the process. I just could not put the book down as I buried myself deeper and deeper into the world of this great modern hero. It seems that God prepared him for the great work that he was to accomplish. Of him it could be truly said, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man!”
It is clear to me that Mandela did not set out to be great. He merely stood up for what he believed to be right, not just for himself, but also for his fellow country men and women. What many labeled terrorism on his part was only an attempt to ensure that all South Africans, not just those who were white, were given equal access to the resources, privileges and protection of their country. This quote of his from his Rivonia trial in 1964 and repeated in 1990 when he was freed from prison sums up the ideals by which he was driven: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Perhaps the single factor on the part of Nelson Mandela that became the pivot on which the country turned from being the pariah of the world to being what is now a highly respected nation was his decision to forgive those who incarcerated him and not hold in judgment his former oppressors for the rest of his life. That resolute position of his which was articulated in speeches but, more importantly, demonstrated by his actions, essentially gave birth to a new nation and hope to the downtrodden and the forgotten. In many ways Nelson Mandela set us all an example of how Christians ought to live in a hostile world. He showed us how to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (Matt. 5:44).
Twice I was privileged to visit the little house behind the Orlando North Seventh-day Adventist Church in Soweto from which Mandela was taken to his twenty-seven year’s incarceration. Its tiny rooms, modest furniture and absence of internal sanitary facilities stood in sharp contrast to the enormity of his accomplishments. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things. It is my hope that all of us who loved and respected Nelson Mandela will allow the values that he espoused to be values by which we also live, that wherever we are we will stand against injustice, defend the weak and defenseless and protect the vulnerable. After all, the only life worth living is one devoted to the service of others.