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Quick Takes

Mandela may be gone, but his DNA lives on – Carl Stauffer

“Have you heard that Mandela died?” The staggering impact of this question took my breath away as I stepped into the office after a full day of classes on Thursday, December 5th. I texted my daughter who had grown up in South Africa, with these simple words, “Wow – this is huge!” Mourning the loss of Mandela has been an enormous undertaking.

“Have you heard that Mandela died?” The staggering impact of this question took my breath away as I stepped into the office after a full day of classes on Thursday, December 5th. I texted my daughter who had grown up in South Africa, with these simple words, “Wow – this is huge!” Mourning the loss of Mandela has been an enormous undertaking. Sitting in a reflective circle with my Restorative Justice class, I tried to describe how Mandela resided in the very consciousness of so many South Africans. He resided in the collective psyche of the nation. He embodied what it meant to live with integrity and with few regrets. Indeed, his leadership presence seemed to be encoded with the moral fiber that now guides conceptions of good governance and just polity at a global level. This has been a particularly poignant grieving time for me having spent 16 years immersed in the historical, socio-political transition in South Africa (1994-2009). The world has lost a beacon of light.

But, Mandela transmitted his DNA to us. And herein lies the hope. While Mandela rarely articulated his faith in the public discourse, through his own admission, we know that he was critically formed by the Methodist missionary education he received as well as by icons of nonviolent justice and reconciliation like Gandhi, MLK (and others) and their transformative movements. In a deeply spiritual, almost covert way, Mandela represented a kind of incarnational presence that showed us what practical theology really looks like. Mandela was not only a political revolutionary – he was a spiritual subversive in his application of reconciliation. Refusing to be bound by tangible-intangible bifurcations, Mandela infused the spirituality of reconciliation into the realpolitik of his time and context in ways that few others would have ever dared to. Mandela was convinced that when you insert acts of reconciliation into the ‘zero-sum’ game of political realism you alter the state of the world. Indeed, Mandela seemed to have internalized the Jesus ethic of ‘enemy love’ in such a visceral, commonsensical manner that it eluded many of the prominent Church and diplomatic leaders around him. This, I believe is finally one of his greatest legacies.

First of all, Mandela understood that reconciliation was personal – I recall a transformative story that most likely never made it into the international press but which exemplified this in a beautiful way. During the early years of Mandela’s presidency his grandson lived with him. And apparently, one day his grandson and his best friend (a white neighbor boy) were playing on a delivery motorcycle that had been left standing idle in the driveway of the Mandela home. Unfortunately, at some point the motorbike fell over and landed on the young white boy breaking his leg. He was quickly rushed to the hospital. As the story goes, when Mandela was told about this accident, he promptly interrupted what he was doing and telephoned the mother of this neighbor boy and inquired into his well-being and not only that, he informed this woman that he would clear his presidential schedule and come with his grandson to visit her and her son that same day. The mother of the boy spoke of flurrying about her house cleaning up in a panic as the ‘President of the country’ was coming to visit her in a few hours! Mandela did just as he had promised and word has it that he and his grandson spent 2 hours sitting on the floor playing with the young boy in a cast. What important presidential appointments and obligations were sacrificed in this simple but powerful act of kindness we will never know, but that is precisely the point – it doesn’t matter in light of the reconciliation transaction that needed to occur at that time, in that place, with that black president, his grandson and the white neighbors.

Secondly, Mandela understood that reconciliation was political – Borrowing from feminist thought, Mandela refused to separate the “personal from the political” (a term popularized by Carol Hanisch, 1969). None of us will forget when President Mandela shocked the nation and the world by insisting on having tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the notorious Afrikaner prime minister of South Africa (1958-1966) who had the dubious honor of being dubbed the “architect of Apartheid”. Verwoerd’s widow was at that time in her mid 90s and lived in an exclusive Afrikaner home for the elderly in the Free State Province. Mandela, against all odds and tremendous opposition, even in the face of outright scorn from both black and white South Africans from all political divides, took the time to fly in his state helicopter to sit down and have a cup of tea with the widow of the man who was ultimately responsible for putting him in prison for 27 years. Mandela’s resolve was undeniably clear in his statements to the press after this momentous visit. His message (paraphrased) was straightforward and sharp: My actions are meant to show all South Africa what I mean by reconciliation. That these kinds of gestures are what the New South Africa looks like; black and white co-existing in freedom – liberated to live together with dignity and harmony in one society.

Thirdly, Mandela understood that reconciliation and justice are inseparable – I was struck by a story told by Mandela’s long-time friend and fellow prisoner on Robben Island Ahmed Kathrada, a South African of Indian descent. Ahmed described how even the treatment of the political prisoners was imbued with structural racism. When first arriving on the island, the black prisoners were issued short pants (in African traditional culture these are for boys, not men) and all the other race groups were given long trousers. On top of this, the other race groups were handed bread with their food but it took 10 years before the black prisoners were granted the ‘right’ to have bread. Ahmed told of how he and others instinctively protested this unfair treatment but Mandela insisted that they continue to accept these so-called ‘privileges’. Why? Because Mandela understood that if they refused these basic human rights in the cause of solidarity with the black prisoners, all race groups would remain equally oppressed. However, in Mandela’s mind if the prisoners who were receiving those ‘favors’ demanded them as ‘entitlements’ the system would eventually be forced to offer these supposed ‘privileges’ to all race groups and in the end all would be lifted up to equal standing. Mandela was right.

Fourthly, Mandela understood that the arch of the universe bends in the direction of reconciliation – At numerous points, Mandela’s life mirrored the paradoxical call of Jesus proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is grounded in a mystery, an eternal timelessness – it is both very present and at the same time, yet to come. In the midst of tremendous pain and suffering, discouragement and isolation, Mandela never lost sight of the “horizon of reconciliation” (a term used by Juan Gutierrez of the Basque Country). Many great figures in history have eloquently cast a vision of future hope in the midst of turmoil and despair. However, only the exceptional leaders are able to live into that future reality in the here and now. Mandela was one of those few. Starting while still confined to his prison walls, Mandela determined to redeem the time and so purposed to be an abiding presence in the now – pouring into the lives of those who surrounded him. These included the many political prisoners who were influenced by his wise tutelage (“Mandela’s University” as it was affectionately called), and his multiple assigned prison warders all who eventually became his friends and allies.

It is here where my life intersected with Mandela’s. For my first two years in South Africa (1994-96) I was privileged to shadow a great mentor, Morontshi Matsobane, who had been personally influenced by Mandela. Morontshi spent 14 years in the prime of his life (ages 26-40) in prison for his political activity – 12 of those years were spent on Robben Island with Mandela. He was released in 1990 just 3 months after Mandela. Shedding bitterness and hate, Morontshi immediately returned to the community organizing and development work that put him in prison to begin with. I observed Morontshi patiently mediate peace and security needs in a transitional period marred by violence as the country struggled for its dignity and the equal redistribution of land, labor, and livelihoods. Many of these negotiations involved the very Apartheid ‘security’ apparatus that would have been responsible for his harassment, arrest and eventual imprisonment. Morontshi is one of the most gracious, forgiving and kind souls I know. He is one of many persons who we called a “little Mandela” – and there were many like him.

These unsung heroes carry the Mandela-DNA and so do we. This DNA is deeply personal and political, it gives us the boldness to speak truth to power, to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8)…and it is contagious.


Carl Stauffer is Assistant Professor of Justice and Development Studies and Co-Director of the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in Harrisonburg, Virginia (US). He is also the Academic Director for the Caux Scholars Program at Initiatives of Change. Stauffer completed his PhD at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, after many years of transitional justice work in South Africa, under the auspices of the Mennonite Central Committee. His latest publication is Acting Out the Myths: The Politics of Narrative Violence in Zimbabwe (Lambert Academic, 2011).

6 thoughts on “Mandela may be gone, but his DNA lives on – Carl Stauffer

  1. Carl, great article and tribute. I posted it to my facebook and to my doctoral cohort – really great. I hope you are well. Take care, Pat

    1. Thank you my good friend. I cannot help but believe that my passion for reconciliation was deeply affected by having grown up amidst the war in Vietnam where you and I formed our friendship. Blessings, Carl

  2. Beautifully written article and a lovely reminder of the importance of justice in peace processes and good governance. You are a gifted writer. Hope you are well!

        1. Indeed – layered, colorful, energetic, creative and nuanced are all fitting descriptions of the diversity of the “African context” – so glad you are in Kenya at this time.

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