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.
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.
On 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.
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.
Nelson 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.