As a white child in South Africa the first thing I was taught about Nelson Mandela was “he is a dangerous terrorist.” The reasoning was something like: “He was convicted for treason in 1964 and sentenced to life imprisonment, he was a bad man who, as a member of a terrorist organisation called the ANC, sought to do harm to good people in South Africa.” The words terrorist and imprisonment seemed to suggest that he seriously was someone to avoid, best kept far away from the mainland and the people he would harm.
Years later I came to see the rubbish we were taught at school, how the history we learnt was carefully woven to instil in us (scared) white children racism and hatred. I realised I lived in and was part of an evil political system. It was only in my teenage years that I came to learn what lies had been perpetuated, how every part of the apartheid system was carefully engineered to brainwash South Africans like me. Nothing, I would come to know, was as far from the truth as this. Mandela has, in my young adult years and early life as a priest, been the one person who became for me the epitome of justice and reconciliation – a living example who taught me that reconciliation is possible and I should be fearless in preaching it.
In 1990, when Mandela was released I remember, vividly, playing cricket and then spending the afternoon, from 2pm, glued to the TV to watch the live feed of him returning to Cape Town from Robben Island. Pictures of Mandela were banned and so I wanted to see this man live for the first time and hear his voice. I was also anxious, I must admit, because I had heard things like “now you whites will see” and “the tide will turn.” This too, I came to learn, was the last desperate attempt to muddy his image. Another icon, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (also a man we were warned of because he dangerously mixed politics and religion!) stood next to Mandela as he embarked upon the path of reconciliation by reaching out to all the people of South Africa. How the hell, I thought over and over again, can you spend 27 years in prison and emerge with no desire for revenge? I remember being amazed at this, it was truly unbelievable.
The first time I voted was on the Cape Flats in Athlone. It was 1994 and I was a student at St Francis Xavier Seminary. I had begun studying for the priesthood. A friend of the family berated my mother for allowing her white son to live in a “dangerous township” in a time of such turmoil. Some of my family left the country that year, expecting the future to be bleak. I, along with mostly fellow black students, headed out to vote in Lawrence Road – the polling station was a local church. The streets were abuzz, there was great excitement and everyone chatted and laughed. I did not experience myself as a white that day, I was a South African. Pictures of Mandela, framed with the colours of the ANC, adorned every lamp post down the road.
The queues were long but the laughter and the chats, the feeling of expectancy and change were palpable. The man everybody looked towards was Nelson Mandela. It was expected that the ANC would win the election hands down, and they did. I recall watching Mandela’s inauguration with my seminary class mates, we had been given the day off! For days thereafter, as the seminary community gathered for prayer, morning and night, and the daily mass people prayed for Mandela, prayed for SA and the “rainbow nation”. I began reading and learning more about the real history of SA. Later I read The Long Walk to Freedom – Mandela’s autobiography. I met people who knew him and many other struggle veterans. I met some of those veterans myself, from time to time, and discovered different faces to the ones I expected or had be warned about.
At times it troubled me that Mandela’s reconciliatory tone was not being reciprocated by the white community in SA. He stretched out his hand to whites, and many minorities, as a firm advocate of reconciliation. He was prepared to go much further than most to form bonds of friendship and reach out to people. In no way did he indicate he wanted revenge or that it was “payback” time. Could I do that and be like he was towards people who were responsible for my suffering and imprisonment that robbed me of half my life? I came to understand that I lived in the era of a remarkable man who was not just a leader but a minister of reconciliation. As a priest I preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe that God works in and acts through people in ways which teach us lessons. God worked in and acted through Mandela to teach a divided nation, on the brink of civil war, a different way.
Mandela had his own struggles, make no mistake, and his own human weaknesses. He did not always get it right – does anyone? He knew pain not only because of his incarceration but also through a rough childhood, failed and broken marriages and the death of a child from HIV. He was a real person who suffered but his sufferings never drove him and controlled his soul. I remember being accused once, after a Sunday mass, by an angry woman who was not happy that I quoted Mandela from the pulpit: “He is a sinner” she insisted. “He has blood on his hands from his terrorist days!” I pointed out that I (and her by association) had blood on my hands too. This was not because I ever fired a gun. I belong to a people that has blood on its hands; the blood Steve Biko and many others who lost their lives fighting for dignity. The Bible tells us “The sins of the fathers will be visited on the children.”
By implication, I too bear the guilt of our countries history – a history of one people who oppressed another. The more I listened to Mandela and read what he had written the more I realised that he was deeply magnanimous. He not only forgave; he wanted the injured to forgive and the offenders to accept responsibility and with it the forgiveness he held out. I wonder if we (white people) ever did take responsibility and accept forgiveness? Mandela’s love for people, his hope, his commitment to dialogue and reconciliation, his own unique brand of justice and his vision were the very fabric of his being. He wanted his essence to become ours as a nation. He was a spiritual man even though he never really spoke openly about religion or belief.
Our country and the world mourns the passing of a great man. We mourn in gratitude. He will go down in history as the giant of our times. The best tribute we can make to Mandela is not in our words alone, the best tribute will be our striving to live with the respect and integrity he modelled. An American friend, Becky, captures it best in something she wrote after hearing of Mandela’s death: “Nelson Mandela’s passing reminds me to rise to my best self in the face of the worst of humanity. To practice forgiveness and reconciliation, even when others don’t ‘deserve’ it. I think I will always be striving to live up to the example he has set for us.” RIP Madiba. DM
Russell Pollitt SJ is a South African Jesuit Priest currently doing a course in Portland, Oregon, USA. Until July 2013 he was parish priest of Holy Trinity in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, and chaplain to the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Johannesburg.
Russell Pollitt is a Jesuit Priest working on the staff of the Jesuit Institute South Africa in Johannesburg. He majored in sociology and cultural-anthropology and also studied philosophy. He has a Master's Degree in Theology. He believes that faith and justice are two sides to one coin and therefore Christian life necessarily demands that we work with people who find themselves on the margins of the Church and society. When he is not contemplating life and the many serious issues believers face today he laces up his running shoes and hits the road, occasionally doing a marathon. Russell is on twitter - @rpollittsj