February 16, 2015

Presidents Day from Africa

by Clint Archer

In honor of the US Presidents Day weekend I wanted to share this highly personal post I wrote as a tribute to a hero of mine the week President Nelson Mandela died. It was originally titled Nelson Mandela Changed me: How to Love a Terrorist.

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) died on Thursday, at 95 years old. Today the world will talk of how his politics molded history. There will be documentaries about his presidential legacy and movies telling his remarkable story. But I doubt any of that will capture the impact he had on people like me. I was a racist and a detractor. I was ignorant and brainwashed. I was a pessimist and a cynic. But Mandela changed my mind.B&W Nelson Mandela

I grew up in the dystopia of Apartheid. As an English speaking White child in the 1980’s I had no idea that the country I lived in was not a democracy—my parents voted, and one day I would too.

I was vaguely aware of banned books, censorship, and protest poetry, but none of that affected my life. I hadn’t an inkling that Whites were a minority, and that Blacks outnumbered us nine-to-one. I lived in a city, which meant that Blacks were only allowed there temporarily and if they had permission papers. They were there to do the dirty jobs. At night they slunk back to their distant and disgusting shanty towns. It never occurred to me that those hodgepodge shacks, built from our rubbish, housed 30 million real people.

I harbored no antipathy toward the Blacks who mowed our lawn and cleaned our home. They were good-humored and friendly folks. They were compliant and submissive, calling my dad Boss, my mom Madam, and I was Kleinbaas (little-boss). We were taught to respect them. When our full time domestic servant—“the maid”—babysat me, she was in charge and was to be respected. I once met with a memorable lesson from Dad’s belt when I accused the lady of stealing sugar. (As it turned out, it was a different pilferer I had overheard my mother complaining about.)

I appreciated the Blacks I knew. But I also knew about the others.

The other Blacks—the Terrorists—were the ones to fear. I learned about them from the news and elementary school history lessons. They lived in the bush, were trained in Angola by Soviet Communists, and were responsible for the paranoia woven into our lives. They were the reason we practiced military drills in school and why every male over eighteen was drafted into the army. My parents owned a store in central Pretoria. My mom was there alone the weekend my dad took us hiking, when the Terrorists bombed the nearby Navy admin headquarters. She was showered in shards of window glass, but thankfully escaped the casualty statistics that day.

Mandela and boyOn my third grade classroom wall was a poster with plastic models of various limpet mines, letter bombs, grenades, and other devices the Terrorists used, so we could report any we saw in malls or stadiums. Our school rehearsed bomb drills and escape evacuation protocols; some were in response to actual threats, others just a welcome escape from math class. We saw sniffer dogs patrol occasionally, and our headmaster had code words that, if used over the PA system, meant the following instructions were being issued under duress.

Fear of the Terrorists was a way of life. Welcome to Africa. But if you needed a person to blame, his name was Nelson Mandela.

The press dubbed him the Black Pimpernel; his Xhosa name, Rolihlahla means “trouble maker.” How prophetic. Mandela haunted our collective consciousness. He was the Boogie Man. He was leader of the fearsome Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC (African National Congress). He pleaded guilty to 156 acts of violence and was now a political prisoner on Robben Island. The bombings were ANC retaliation for Mandela’s incarceration. I asked my teacher why they didn’t just release Mandela so that the fighting would stop? My naïveté irked her: “To let a man like that free is to untie a dog you’ve been teasing. He won’t slink away. He’ll come get you.”

That made sense. Maybe they shouldn’t have locked him up to begin with, but now that he’d been stewing in rage and plotting revenge, they had better keep him in or it could get all Count of Monte Cristo on us.

B&W Mandela

It astonished me to learn that the reason South Africa was banned from the Olympics, and that the USA was in favor of economic sanctions, and that we were denied visas to visit Disneyland, was all because Mandela was in jail. I thought the world had gone crazy. Didn’t they know that a fiend like that belonged behind bars? Were they really falling for Bishop Tutu’s cockamamie side of the story? Hello everybody, of course Tutu wants him free, Tutu’s Black!

I was in high school when I first heard Mandela’s name mentioned as a victim. I was transitioning out of the embarrassing Roxette pop music stage of life into the more sophisticated alternative rock phase. Just like everyone else in the world, my favorite band was U2. It was Bono’s piercing impromptu monologue on the Rattle and Hum CD that chimed a resonance in my conscience that would eventually quake my parochial world. In the middle of Track 8, “Silver and Gold,” the singer launched into a diatribe about my country. I was surprised the Irish legend had heard about us, let alone wrote a song about us. But what he said haunted me.

Yep, silver and gold… This song was written in a hotel room in New York city ’round about the time a friend or ours, Little Steven, was putting together a record of artists against apartheid. This is a song written about a man in a shanty town outside of Johannesburg. A man who’s sick of looking down the barrel of white South Africa. A man who is at the point where he is ready to take up arms against his oppressor. A man who has lost faith in the peacemakers of the west while they argue and while they fail to support a man like Bishop Tutu and his request for economic sanctions against South Africa. Am I buggin’ you? I don’t mean to bug ya… Okay Edge, play the blues…”

Wait, what!? We were oppressors? It was as if the news Bono watched was different from the news I saw on our Orwellian government-sponsored TV channels. I started to search for the facts; they were not easily found. There was no Internet, only the resources that were not on the banned list. And I was just a schoolboy, so I had more important pursuits that occupied my attention: girls, grades, and gaming. I would just skip Track 8.

It happened on February 11, 1990. Nelson Mandela, the head Terrorist, was released from Robben Island prison. [Insert a montage of news clips and sound bites culminating in Mandela becoming the President of South Africa after the first democratic election on April 27, 1994.] By this time sensible White families had stocked up on cans of tuna and bottled water, hunkering down for the inevitable civil war that was about to break out. We had seen it happen in Zimbabwe a few years before. When Robert Mugabe came into power he encouraged Blacks to seize the property of White farmers by force. Most of the survivors fled to South Africa: we called it White Flight. Now the nightmare was coming again.

But what happened next is nothing short of divine intervention. In the place of an enraged, vengeful anarchist, Nelson Mandela carried himself with quiet dignity, poise, and wisdom. Instead of wreaking revenge on his captors, he invited his former prison warden to his home for a meal. Rather than boycotting South Africa’s epic international rugby debut (the ultimate Whiteman’s sport), he donned the iconic green-and-gold jersey, sporting the captain’s number, and he danced for joy as the Springboks won the World Cup. We watched our new Xhosa president sing, in his mother tongue, our new anthem, Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika—“God bless Africa.”

Mandela counseled reconciliation, modeled forgiveness, and pulled our fragmented nation into a family.

Mandela and PiennaarNelson Mandela was no longer a Boogie Man to be feared. He was a peacemaker to be thanked, which the Nobel committee recognized. He emerged from the shroud of propaganda and his conduct earned our respect and won our hearts. He was a healing balm for our broken nation. He was the anodyne to sooth the painful past. We called him Madiba (his Xhosa clan name used by those with familial affinity).

I can never agree with Mandela’s socialist politics, and I shudder to think of his violent atrocities, but history shows that the erstwhile revolutionary who was cast into prison was not the peacemaker that came out. He had changed, which brought to his supporters much consternation and to his detractors genuine relief.

I got saved years later, in college. And now I believe with conviction that the turn of events was an unambiguous answer to the prayers of believers for their nation.

Paul told Timothy, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,  for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:1-2).

Just as God used Caesar to move Mary to Bethlehem, He used Mandela to bring factious South Africans together. The religious freedom and political peace of South Africa has no explanation besides an answer to prayer. God really did bless South Africa through Nelson Mandela.  If he wanted to, Mandela could have mobilized his supporters to start a civil war that would have killed or chased Whites from South Africa. But he was not that type of man. At his inauguration he said:

Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another…”

It was the love for his enemies that affected my life in tangible ways. It was his forgiveness. And so, today our beloved country cries. Mandela was a terrorist I feared. Now he is a hero I admire, and a man I love.

You will be missed Madiba.

Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • jeff

    Interesting article. The world says I should adore Mandela and Peter Hammond of http://www.frontline.org.za/ tells me he is anything but praiseworthy. This article seems to strike a proper balance and that from one who lived it(as did Hammond). Thanks Clint and may God bless Africa more and more.

  • Wade R.

    I agree with Jeff, I not sure if God Blessed Mr. Mandela’s policies that he put into place after becoming President of South Africa – just read what Dr. Hammond has to say about this very depraved man – http://www.frontline.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1677:the-mandela-industry&catid=16:political-social-issues-cat&Itemid=201. In Christ Alone, Wade R.

    • I read the article you linked to and honestly don’t see it as disagreeing with anything I said. I did find it quite ironic, in that his main point is we shouldn’t worship a personality, but the writer spends some space listing why he is worth respecting (35 years in missions etc.) Anyway, I think anyone who read my post will know that I acknowledge the policies and practices of the late president were unacceptable to Christians.

  • E S Gonzalez

    I’m a bit unsettled by this post and comments so far.
    I think it’s sufficient and conclusive to say (and remember) that ALL men are ugly things capable of some beautiful. Some are well known/prominent, some aren’t. But–save Christ in us–we’re all the same filth. And as such, we ought to take care to be balanced/fair and humble in our assessment and judgment of others. The nauseatingly telling thing is that–it’s been my observation anyway–by and large, “fans” of men like N. Mandela and … say … G. Washington LOOK like them; critics don’t.
    It’s a personal thing going on ultimately … and not objective. We choose which reports we’ll believe … which we’ll weigh more heavily/give more credence (oftentimes, not all the time) based on how–by our personal experiences, circumstances, heritage, cultural/ethnic identities, etc.–we view/relate to these figures.
    The racism thing, man (smh) … it’s an invasive, stubborn, monstrous thing indeed! It makes it so hard to see … because its victims’ eyes are either squinted with resentment, hatred and anger or blurred with tears and disillusionment.
    Mandela was a man. Infected with the same malady residing in all of us. Did more good than some. Did more harm than others. Known and understood fully and intimately only by his Maker.

    • D

      I look at a persons actions, decisions, convictions. From my faith, I learn and believe what is really important in life. Killing people through terroristic acts is kind of a big deal. Call it judgemental if you want, but the truth remains. Mandela is no hero to me.

      • E S Gonzalez

        Are David and Paul heroes to you? They did some terribly ugly things. But those things weren’t their whole story, and the sin w/in them, which enabled them to do the wicked things they did, menaces all men.
        My stuff may not be as known or as “big” to men but it’s just offensive to God. “You’ve heard it said … but I say unto you …” This is the place I’m coming from.
        Moreover, I’ve always been encouraged to consider the source whenever possible– I’m speaking generally now, not specific to this article.
        My father would say, “The safari hunter can boast of being the world’s greatest hunter … because the lion speaks not the language of men.”
        With regard to world history, he also taught us, “There are facts, inferences, labels … take care not to present one as another and to attribute/cite the info you share.”
        We can, in most cases, evaluate only what is reported, and what is reported may not always be true, complete, or objective. Would you agree? Three people will observe a situation or speak w an individual and give different reports/accounts. Because one or more among them lies? No. Because their lenses are colored differently. We have to allow for that as we consider what they say … and be honest about our OWN lenses as we do that.
        This is the heart and mind behind my comment(s).

      • I think the point of the post is that people change. Simon the Zealot was a terrorist and then an Apostle with his own foundation stone in the New Jerusalem. I’m not saying Mandela got saved, just that praying for our leaders can lead to benefits for Christians and our society.

  • Don Smith

    Good piece. I was there as an American missionary pastor (1989-1996). Our work included both blacks and whites (separately at first). Your explanation sounds right to me. I’d give credit to Providence rather than speculate on whether Mandela changed or was always focused on reconciliation. For certain I was surprised at the way things developed. Thanks for your humble account. God bless South Africa.

  • george canady

    Dear Pastor Archer,
    I am no one to be thanking you. I do thank God for you as I see ongoing evidence of Him slowly opening the eyes of the only institution that he gave to make a lasting heart change in this, the invisible Church. Thank you for humbly admitting your sin as you repent in telling us your story. I’m sure that you will be misunderstood by some, as I would have some years ago, and suffer criticism for this message of reconciliation. Perhaps we were meant to ask forgiveness, then tell the pure ,the whole, truth before peace can come.

  • EC

    Clint. I am from South Africa as well and immigrated to America in 2000 with my husband and son. We are a God fearing family and born again Christians. We left SA because of the inpresidented violence and senseless murders of hundreds and thousands of people of all races, which is seen as justified by the government. Pay back.
    I cannot agree with your article. It is only through the prayers of the Christians of all the races in SA that we had fa transition in government without bloodshed as happened in the rest of Africa. It had nothing to do with a ‘changed’ Mandela. He knew future international fame and great fortune lay ahead for him if he behaved himself. The government he put in place is destroying the country economically, politically, and socially, is one of the most corrupt in the world ( and that says a lot) and is comprised of some of the most racists rulers – even in comparison with the rulers during the Apartheid era. Things are MUCH worse now, for everyone.
    You explain in your article how politically obtuse you grew up. I am sorry about that and it still shows in your article. You do not have to be so apologetic about growing up under Apartheid. Let it go. The Indian in America did not fare well under the white man either and I do not expect Americans today to apologise for it.
    I grew up very aware of the international political scene and I am very grateful for my upbringing. I knew exactly what was going on and make no apologies. I also knew it was unsustainable and that it was morally wrong.
    I am sorry for everyone of all skin colour in that beautiful country which I feel is still my home. (All my family is still living there, in Pretoria.) I am sorry that the dream of freedom that so many were duped into has turned into a nightmare and like us, growing up under Apartheid they are caught up in a system of self destruction.
    I am grateful I could immigrate. So many cannot leave. So many are going to die.

  • Heather Harris

    “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy to a friend.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

    Thank you for speaking up and sharing your personal thoughts on this issue, Clint. I think it’s a great article 🙂