Friday, 6 December 2013

RIP: Nelson Mandela

"There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires." (Nelson Mandela)
The news has broken that Nelson Mandela (born 18 July 1918, died 5 December 2013) has died. He was a South African political activist, co-winner of Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk in 1993. And most significantly, where dictators have risen to power, or good men have later become dictatorial rulers of countries, he became in 1994 he became the first President of South Africa to be elected in fully-representative democratic elections, and was not corrupted by power.
Perhaps that was because he had learnt the lessons of power, and how dangerous it can be. He had indeed considered the way of violence in an interview in 1961, when he said:
"There are thousands of people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non-violence - against a government whose only reply is savage attacks on an unarmed and defenceless people. And I think the time has come for us to consider, in the light of our experiences at this day at home, whether the methods which we have applied so far are adequate."
This was a time of racial segregation in South Africa- apartheid - when black peoples were treated very brutally indeed. Because along with segregation, as in South Africa, came class segregation, where black people were treated as second class citizens.
What was even worse that a particular brand of Dutch Calvinism lent itself to support apartheid. This was a legacy of the time of the Boers, when the Dutch were intent on carving out their own Empire in Africa, along with the other European powers.
In the Afrikaner Calvinist ordering of the world, the elect were predestined before the creation to be elect, and the elect, of course, were the white settlers. The doctrine of predestination imposed fixity on the structure of South African society.
"The Calvinist penchant for strict Biblical interpretation had led to a world-view which splits the human race into different God-created entities, different ethnicities. God's destruction of the Tower of Babel and the separation of language from the time of Genesis proved the crucial existence of different ethnicities as part of God's will in the mind of the Afrikaner." (1)
"The entire apartheid system was based on Calvin's interpretation of predestination and election. In fact, Calvinism per se pretty much had a lot to do with the institutionalization of Apartheid in South Africa. John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: 'All are NOT created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or to death.' (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Section 21, 5)" (2)
Against this there was a rising tide of opposition from the black community, but not just from them. Trevor Huddleston, in his book "Naught for your Comfort" describes the situation he faced as a priest sent out to Africa. He may have been white, but he was on the side of social justice, and against oppression. Huddleston
"fought to alleviate poverty and railed against laws that made blacks non-citizens in their own land. ''There is no time to be lost in breaking the present government I am convinced,'' he wrote in ''Naught For Your Comfort,'' his 1955 book about his experiences. In 1956, he was recalled by his superiors, who feared the views expressed in his book might get him expelled. ''I did not want to leave because I loved being in Africa, but I had taken a vow of obedience so I had to." (3)
Huddleston later worked together with Desmond Tutu in opposing apartheid. There was a rising movement within Christianity to critique the Calvinist chains that had bound the country under apartheid.
It is in the fight against oppression that Mandela came to the forefront as one of the leaders. But unlike so many of those who fought for freedom in African states, he was fighting not for black peoples against white peoples, but against injustice domination and oppression in whatever form it manifested itself. He was not blind to the corrupting nature of power, and he was not looking to replace white oppression with black oppression.
A notable example of precisely that happening was Rhodesia, where Robert Mugabe gained power, and sought to keep power by means of force, becoming as brutal as the white government he had criticised.
But Mandela, in a speech in the Rivona Trial in 1964, said:
"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
I still remember when Mandela was released in 1990, watching the television, and feeling hope that at last something better would be coming to Africa. Even his speech showed a very different outlook.
"It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity."
And the rest is history, as they say. He became ANC President, and led negotiations with President F.W. de Klerk to abolish apartheid and establish multiracial elections in 1994. He led his ANC party to victory and was elected President. He formed a Government of National Unity, and worked to defuse ethnic tensions, promulgating a new constitution and began the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was a way of confronting the human rights abuses of Africa's past and sought a reconciliatory approach which was quite different from anything done before.
 Rather like Martin Luther King, so much that he said is inspiring, and memorable. Here are a few quotations:
"I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended"
"When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning."

No comments: