“Most politicians represent an interest group, a community of people who vote for them and whose interests they serve. Nelson Mandela was different; he represented a community that did not yet exist, a community he hoped would come into being.” —Rowan Williams
Over the past days there have been a lot of pixels lighting up social media and television, glowing with praise for the late Nelson Mandela. Some of this praise has come from surprising quarters, and doubtless the man himself would have found ironic the presence of America’s George W. Bush and Canada’s Stephen Harper at his memorials (much less Rick Santorum claiming Mandela’s inspiration for the fight against US public health care). There have also been a few dissident voices, mostly from fundamentalist Christian sites on the right. Indeed, a few whites have gone on record as fearing “a night of the long knives” in the aftermath of his departure. Doubtless there are others who, while maintaining a respectful silence for the moment, would claim that this living symbol of reconciliation hindered genuine socioeconomic transformation. But the overwhelming mood at home and abroad has been one of celebration—the commemoration of a global icon.
Beyond the inspirational quotes and pictures posted on Facebook pages and Twitter feeds there is a deeper significance to Nelson Mandela: the actions of a living, breathing person who was formed within a particular situation, time, and place. It was a living, breathing human being who rejected the Gandhian non-violence that had characterized the anti-apartheid struggle up to 1960, as well as the white paternalism that promised rights for Africans “in good time.” It was a living, breathing human being who was removed from society as only apartheid South Africa could remove someone, not just through exile to the lime quarries of Robben Island, but through the relentless persecution of his family and the criminalization of speaking his name, quoting his words, or displaying his image. It was a living, breathing human being—the founder of a guerrilla movement now stripped of weapons—who learned to use moral persuasion to win the dignity of his fellow prisoners, and transformed a prison into a university. It was a living, breathing human being who resolved also to leave the internal prison of anger and resentment, and to reconcile with his enemies. It was a living, breathing human being who shook the hands of the prosecutor who tried many years before to have him executed, and had tea with the widow of Apartheid’s architect, Hendrik Verwoerd. It was a living, breathing human being who offered to sit beside the hated P.W. Botha, former tormenter of black South Africans, if the latter would appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a gesture of reconciliation. And then there was that moment, captured so well in the film Invictus, to which I’ll return below.
Mandela was also a participant in the suffering of the majority of South Africans. No self-proclaimed “organic intellectual,” he knew as a youth in the Transkei the destructive power of the pass system which forced husbands and fathers off their land to toil in the distant gold mines, disrupting a way of life that had been kept in balance for centuries. He knew as a young man in Johannesburg the daily humiliations of petty apartheid, being told to purchase his own tea cups so as to not drink from the same vessels as whites, to use separate toilets and train cars. His incarceration included forced labour that left his joints strained, his eyes weak and his lungs scarred—scars that would contribute to his later demise. His deeply personal suffering, which included the deaths of his mother and one of his sons while incarcerated (and denied compassionate leave) could also connect with those who likewise lost family members while the apartheid system enforced separation. And the public toll the struggle took on his own marriage to Winnie Mandela is well known, as the usually stoic man who refused to make capital on personal matters cast a lonely figure after being forced to announce his separation to the media. The 2005 death of his son of AIDS led him to take up that cause as well, sharing the pain of hundreds of thousands of parents and grandparents in southern Africa.
But Mandela could also identify with the suffering of Afrikaner families in the South African war, evidenced in a remarkable thank you letter sent in February 1975 to Tafelberg Publishers, the nationalist publishers of the Afrikaans poetry he read while in prison, and came to treasure. Here, at the height of Apartheid (which refused to link Africans and Afrikaners as members of a common people), Mandela praised this poetry of “*ons volk* (“our nation”). National Party politician Roelof “Pik” Botha recounts the first time meeting Mandela in 1990, when, after displaying a remarkable knowledge of the suffering of Afrikaner women and children in the British concentration camps, he posed the question of why in its light Afrikaners had failed to reach out to their fellow sufferers in the black communities. Botha says it was a “haunting question.” For Mandela it showed his own gift of enlargement through the embrace of a common humanity.
Mandela was not perfect, and was to first to say so. He was candid about abandoning his first wife, Evelyn, and their children to marry someone nearly twenty years younger. He made strategic political errors, and was loyal to his friends to a fault. Those who worked closely with him knew “the old man” could be difficult to work with. Even his fellow icon Desmond Tutu had his quarrels with Mandela, most notably over the salaries of the newly elected in 1994 (Mandela’s response, after publicly calling out Tutu, was to donate most of his earnings to a children’s foundation set up in his name). He did not see himself as a great man who, Horatio Algar-like had pulled himself up through a combination of smarts and circumstance, overcoming adversity to triumph. This is one of the most pernicious distortions in the popular picture of Mandela. He always referred to himself as “a disciplined member” of a movement greater than he, and someone whose formation in the struggle owed much to the friends and communities (including the mission schools) which nurtured his thinking and honed his praxis. He was a product of the South African people—more about that in a moment. Even so, he knew that as a leader he sometimes had to step beyond the immediate consensus of the movement in order to sustain its longer-term goals of liberation and justice, as when he stood before the executive of his own party, which had just voted to get rid of the hated Springbok emblem (a climactic scene in the film Invictus). Without ignoring the way it had functioned in the past, Mandela argued for its reinterpretation in the present. A symbol of exclusion and radicalized elitism became in June of 1995 a symbol of nation-building. Like the Afrikaans poetry he read in prison, it also served to extend the vision of the liberation movement beyond the more parochial concerns of the formerly oppressed, keeping it open to ever-new understandings of what a “South African” identity could mean.
The meaning of Mandela is found in the opening up of this idea of a South Africa constantly enlarging itself to reincorporate those formerly estranged. In that way it points, parable-like, toward the Kingdom Jesus spoke of. Indeed, Mandela’s vision was of a continent, a world in which enemies learned to become friends. Hence it is appropriate that friends and enemies from across the globe have been making pilgrimage to the memorials this week, including ideological opponents from the U.S. to Iran and Venezuela, from the U.K. to Argentina and Zimbabwe. Beyond iconic was the handshake between Presidents Obama and Castro at the memorial service in Soweto. Such a thing had never happened before, and represented the sustained possibility of the most intractable enemies becoming friends. On the other hand, this welcome of global figures underscores the tragedy of so many Africans from the other side of the Limpopo who have failed to find hospitality in post-apartheid South Africa, not to mention the current regime’s refusing to invite the Dalai Lama for fear of angering powerful China.
Of all that has been written about Mandela over the past few days, the words of Rowan Williams quoted at the top of this reflection stand out most. While he knew where he came from, Mandela also knew that the community he ultimately served did not yet exist. The eschatological reserve compels us to say that it cannot exist in any sustained way “during the world” (in Charles Mathewes’ phrase), this side of The New Jerusalem (to which *all* nations will stream). And yet it can be “borrowed from” to bring about relative transformation for people in this age, a parable of the great transformation of the age to come. The Kingdom of God is like… a freedom fighter become political prisoner become reconciling president. The Kingdom of God is like… representatives of one of the deepest and most intractable conflicts of our time sharing the Nobel Peace Prize. The Kingdom of God is like… presidents and kings and clerics and ordinary people walking through the open gates of a stadium to acknowledge this life. Nelson Mandela’s actions—from the smallest gesture to the largest—enlarged the present to welcome that future. This is the challenge, and the meaning of, Mandela’s life.
The response of South Africans to Mandela’s death this week has been striking, and we dare not miss *its* significance. There is mourning, yes: for the man and (wistfully) for the “golden age” of his presidency. There is a recollection of the vision that gave birth, in a year that saw the pounding of Sarajevo and the Rwandan genocide, to a new beginning. But there is also among South Africans—the same people that produced Nelson Mandela—a determination to live into that enlargement of the world he hailed. So should there be with all “living, breathing human beings”—not least with those of us who have seen the shape of the world to come in Jesus Christ.
Stephen W. Martin is Associate Professor of Theology at King’s University College in Edmonton, Alberta. He completed his Ph.D at the University of Cape Town in 1999, and has written extensively on the South African experience, including the book Faith Negotiating Loyalties: An Exploration of South African Christianity Through a Reading of the Theology of H. Richard Niebuhr (Lanham: University Press of America, 2008), and the article “Civic Sacrament and Social Imaginaries in Transition: The Case of the Churches and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Political Theology 12.3 (2011) 386-418.