Nicolas Stebbing CR on Mandela’s legacy and why we should follow his example of forgiveness

Cape Town is a beautiful city. On the Sea Point side houses climb up Table Mountain and those rich enough to live up there have a stunning view out over the city, and the Atlantic Ocean. In the midst of that view is an island, looking rather like a badly fried egg. That is Robben Island.

For decades while the rich were living their comfortable lives (and still do) they were barely aware of the hundreds of men living out their years of imprisonment in the harsh prison on Robben Island. Life was tough there. Food was poor; buildings were basic and very cold in winter. Prisoners had to work in the quarry every day, literally breaking stone.

No bitterness

Here Nelson Mandela lived for over 20 years before moving to Polsmoor in Cape Town. He heard from time to time of the continuing and escalating brutalities against his own people. He had only occasional contact with his family. He was not able to go to his own son’s funeral. To most South Africans and to large numbers outside South Africa he was a terrorist leader who advocated armed struggle. What would happen when he was released finally, in 1990? The answer is well known.

He emerged smiling, laughing, talking to everyone. He spoke of reconciliation and showed he meant it. He spoke Afrikaans to the Afrikaners who had oppressed him and his people. There seemed to be no bitterness, no anger in him. Unlike Robert Mugabe and most other African Nationalist leaders he had left all that behind.

South Africa, the most cruelly divided country in Africa, with its long record of violence against its own people became, for a moment at least, an example to all. Nelson forgave. He didn’t just say he forgave. He didn’t only preach reconciliation. Over and over again he did it. People knew he was genuine. He was not afraid of anyone (as Mugabe is). He was completely his own man. Within a year he had won the hearts of most of his people, White and Black. The ANC continues to have major problems, as does South Africa. That is not Nelson’s fault.

A gift from God

Where did this great gift of forgiveness come from? Ultimately, it was from God. God gave Nelson the gift he needed above all others to bring peace to South Africa. Perhaps that was the fruit of all those prayers for South Africa in the dark days before 1990.

We should never underestimate prayer, though we never know for sure what it does! Nelson was no churchman, though he believed in God and would call himself a Christian. That didn’t stop God working in him. Nelson entered into a Christian inheritance. Two of his closest colleagues were good Anglicans: Walter Sisulu who shared much of his time in prison, and Oliver Tambo, leader of the ANC outside the country.

Opposing injustice

The Christian churches do not have a great record opposing the injustice of apartheid. It was a long time before they plucked up the courage to do something about the evil of racial discrimination. Anglicans for a while were in the forefront of this: Canon James Calata, Michael Scott, Trevor Huddleston, Geoffrey Clayton, Helen Joseph, Desmond Tutu, and Barney Pityana are some of the best known of these. Later, Roman Catholics and Methodists came on board as well.

It took a long time for people to realize that Christians had to speak publicly, to oppose injustice, to work against the evil that the elected government was doing. That was a lesson from the Second World War. Had Christians stood up to Hitler, instead of giving in to him as the elected leader, there would never have been a war.

The lesson Edmund Burke taught two centuries ago has taken a long time to sink in: ‘For evil to triumph it is enough simply for good men to do nothing.’ Christians should have said more and done more, but we often forget that in South Africa, as in Africa generally, Christian missions provided the real basis of revolution.

They gave people education, making it possible for them to enter the new world and demand an equal right to share it. They gave Africans positions of leadership, treated them as colleagues (well, almost, though not always!) and encouraged them to believe they were just as beloved to God as White people were. That was a potent discovery. Black Anglicans and white Anglicans gradually came together to oppose something that was deeply against the love of God.

Nelson Mandela was a powerful, effective symbol of that. What will be the legacy of Mandela? Please God, not just speeches of adulation from politicians and business leaders who have already denied with their own corrupt lives all that he stood for. Not just statues, or buildings and roads named after him.

What can we do?

First, we need to stand up against injustice, corruption, racial prejudice and all the evil that continues to poison the lives of millions in Africa. We readers of NEW DIRECTIONS who proudly claim to be Catholic Anglicans, what are we doing about that? Catholic Christianity is rooted in the incarnation of a Christ who is man as well as God and has shown it to be a blasphemy to treat God’s people badly. It is as blasphemous to share in the oppression of the poor today, as it would be to take the sacrament out of the tabernacle on our altars, and stamp on it.

Second, we need to follow the teaching of the new Pope Francis that injustice is wrong, poverty is wrong and we Christians must never collude with the powers that try to profit out of it.

Third, we need to learn to forgive, to teach the world to forgive and to convince the angry, warring peoples of this world that Mandela’s way is the right way to move beyond the violence and find peace.

Spirit of mission

As Catholic Anglicans we need Mandela’s example: we have been hurt, abused, misunderstood over the past few years. We feel we have lost much of the Catholic heritage we love. Can we forgive and seek reconciliation and find Christ among the other members of our church who have hurt us so much? Also, as so often happens in trouble, we have become inward-looking, stuck within our own corner, worrying about small issues.

Where is the spirit of mission that took Catholics to South Africa and helped build a world that produced Nelson Mandela? Where is the passion for the weak, whom God specially loves, and the willingness to fight for things that do not just benefit ourselves? We cannot love, honour and admire Nelson Mandela with words alone. We must do it with deeds. Alan Paton (also an Anglican) wrote in Cry the Beloved Country of his great fear that by the time Whites got round to loving, Blacks would have turned to hating. It is in great part due to Nelson Mandela that Blacks also forgave how they had been treated and turned instead to build a future. God was good to us there. ND