Last night i heard the news that Nelson Mandela, one of my lifelong heroes, had died. I just want to write some of my own thoughts and responses.
He’d been ill for some time, his health hasn’t been good for a number of years, and he was 95- he’d lived twice the life expectancy of the rural poor in South Africa… so it came as no surprise, really, to hear the news of his death.
But how do we remember him? How do we remember a man who steered a country through one of the greatest challenges any nation can face? How do we remember a man who was sentenced to life imprisonment for what, in any nation, would be described as acts of terrorism?
Fergal Keane, in this report gives a good, balanced account of some part of Mandela’s legacy- he made promises that he could not keep, but he brought the country away from apartheid without civil war, he failed to recognise the threat of HIV/AIDS for a long time, but he established democratic freedom for people of all racial backgrounds…
When i used to sing ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ as a schoolboy in middle England, i knew little of what or who i was singing about- just that we couldn’t eat South African oranges and there weren’t South African sports teams. Around the same time I loved the anarchic rebellion of the Blues Brothers, and wanted to live my life like James Dean in ‘Rebel without a cause’… in my teenage middle class way there was some kind of rebellion going on, but against who or what, I couldn’t say.
Years later i stood in the doorway of his cell on Robben Island, and i still knew little of the reality of the man, or of his country. I travelled a bit, and saw things, and knew how the country had begun to change, and heard about the hopes and fears of my (white) family in the new reality.
The thing is, what i do know is that he wasn’t perfect. That he made mistakes, and errors of judgement. But his successes outweighed his failures and his persistence was rewarded. He found a cause worth everything, and he put everything into it.
None of that makes him a saint, and i’m not putting him up for beatification, but in some ways it makes Nelson Mandela an even greater human being- with warts and all.
It would be easy to make comparisons between Nelson Mandela’s love of his country, his acknowledgement of the importance and power of grace, and the necessity for healing of community and individual relationships, and the narrative of Christianity that we see played out in the Bible. But i don’t think Nelson Mandela attempted to live his life so that I could have a cheap sermon illustration, so i’ll simply say that all the things we admire in Nelson Mandela, we see writ large in the life of Jesus.
If we admire and respect the one, what does that have to say about our attitude to the other?