Peace on earth, goodwill to all men!
I was surprised – no, it was more than surprise; I was astounded! I had been expecting it, given what I had come to know, but it still overwhelmed me.
When I try to reconnect with my feelings and recall my thoughts, to tap into those first impressions more than two decades later, I am aware that, as so often happens when looking back into the distant past, the factual and the actual risks evolving into a more romantic embellishment. (Those who know anglers will recognise the size of their catch grows with each telling of the story – at least before the age of mobile camera-phones!) But, I know as I write this piece that I was astonished, because the wonder of it has remained with me, inspired me and, often, drawn me silently but steadily to my better self when my self-centeredness has threatened to affect my relationships. I also know, whenever I have ignored it, I have behaved less worthily than I should.
I was sitting, watching - with emotions I have never been able to analyse – as Rolihlahla ‘Nelson’ Mandela, ‘Tate’, ‘Madiba’ started on a momentous leg of his ‘long walk to freedom’ journey. This bit would take him from being the world-renowned ‘hope for emancipation’ icon of the freedom struggle to becoming a world statesman, an astute political leader and a princely broker of peace.
As I watched, I ‘took in’ all the familiar sights, sounds and smells of my beloved home city. I spotted the flower-sellers and in my soul, somewhere, ‘heard’ their witty rhyming sales-talk – ‘Madam, buy a bloom. It takes away the gloom!’ – and ‘enjoyed’ the warm summer air being filled with the sweet aroma of Cape Town’s finest flowers. I ‘felt the vibe’ of the bustling crowd, reminding me of those Coon Carnivals parading down that very same street. I saw the City Hall and remembered the teenage commitment I made at youth councils in one of the meeting halls.
It astonished me that this man, who had been judged through ignorance by many (including my indoctrinated self) and jailed through injustice, spending his best years incarcerated – with all of its serious consequences, not only the significant loss of personal freedom, but loss of family, of a future, of determining his own fate. This man, so bereft, addressed a joyous, triumphant crowd in humility and gratitude, pledging the rest of his life to serving the nation and working towards a new South Africa, having won over many (including myself) by his commitment to a non-racial society.
‘I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all’, is how he started. ‘Freedom for all’? Was he referring to those who were not free? I sat in my lounge in the United Kingdom – appointed there because the Mixed-Marriages Act of the Apartheid system precluded my serving legally in South Africa with my Norwegian wife - watching the television, conscious on that momentous day in February 1990 that South Africa, my troubled country, had an opportunity for a peaceful transition from Apartheid to democracy for all; not just those who were not free, but for everyone who regarded South Africa as home. And that the taking of this glorious opportunity for interracial peace was being advocated by this astounding man as he spoke from the balcony of Cape Town’s City Hall on the day of his release. He gave a definite call to see the struggle through to its conclusion, but in his speech, there was no talk of revenge – harmony and peace were his focus and his goals. It was remarkable that someone who had experienced such violation of his own person could be so selfless, and so totally committed to the common good.
As the news of his death and the impact of his life were being reported all around the world, I found myself wandering the streets of Dublin, and saw there the headlines in the Irish newspapers, honouring the life and the memory of Nelson Mandela. I found myself wondering what the history of the Emerald Isle - especially during the period referred to as ‘The Troubles’ - could have been like if Mandela had been Irish. Then my mind drifted to Syria, Egypt, Congo, Sudan, Korea. Peace continues to be elusive, despite the example of people like Madiba and Ghandi, and despite of the Christmas blessing from God through the angels of ‘peace and goodwill to all men’.
Tate Mandela is gone and, frankly, I am relieved that he has been released from his suffering. He has done his work – a remarkable work it has been, but it is done. And, like all great fathers, he has left us a legacy with which to build our futures. Mandela’s legacy is a remarkable one – it is one of forgiveness and reconciliation; of selfless commitment to a cause greater than one’s own need and, worse, greed for revenge, power, wealth – the symptoms of selfishness which lie behind so much of the atrocities we continue to see. He epitomised this selflessness by focusing on the nation’s desperate need for peace and harmony, rather than his own anger and pain. He called South Africa to emulate him and, in large measure, they did – averting the disaster and destruction of civil war, and instead becoming the miracle that is the Rainbow Nation.
Mandela is not a saint – and we must not mistake him for one – but his impact on his world is all the more remarkable for that. This man’s vision of a non-racial, harmonious and peaceful society was so vivid that it prompted him to turn his sword into a ploughshare, his fist into an outstretched hand, his rhetoric into negotiations with his enemies, his pride and dignity into the wearing of a despised Springbok rugby jersey, his right to justice and retribution into reconciliation with and for the whosoever. What a legacy he has given us! Let us not waste the wealth he has given us by ‘expending’ it selfishly, abusing the freedom he, along with millions of others, fought to achieve; by reverting to the language of ‘us and them’, by being self-seeking and power-hungry; let us not squander his legacy any more than we have done. Let us refuse to do so and instead invest it into the treasure which is the Rainbow Nation. And let us continue to model peace and harmony to a world desperately in need of it.
As a South African, I am proud to share my nationality with this man. As a human being, I am inspired to have shared a history with this man. As a Christian, I am challenged by this man who lived out in full view of a watching world what our faith calls us to exemplify and what, sadly, we so frequently fail to model. Madiba’s ‘magic’ is that, consciously or not, when he was in a position to have gone another way, he applied God’s solution for the world – self-sacrifice, forgiveness and love: the story of Christmas to the South African context.
Rest in peace, Tate Madiba – hamba kahle!
Peace and goodwill to all men!