I remember the day well … the build up of anticipation and then the emergence of a greying but upright man, walking out strongly, accompanied by his wife, emerging from the press of people and police waiting this momentous event. And then that famous salute – the fist-clench that signified survival and freedom.
Who was that man?
Nelson Mandela – and the day was 11th February 1990.
I cannot say anything about him that has not already been said, and by more eloquent and informed people than myself. All I can say is why, for me, a truly great man died last night.
As a teenager, Nelson Mandela inspired me – because he stood up for what he believed in, despite the cost to himself. He was no God – I don’t think he would have claimed that – he was a fallible human being, but he was prepared to sacrifice his freedom for something greater than himself. He was someone to rally behind, who stood for freedom, self-determination and courage. And I admired that hugely.
And that admiration only increased as I heard more of this man. As I read more about him. And as I saw how he presided over the first election in South Africa to see black people allowed to vote. Hearing a voice of dignity rather than triumph, a voice of reconciliation rather than hatred – I wondered how many others would have had the grace to offer that kind of forgiveness to those he had every reason to hate. There have been others, certainly, but for me Mandela stood out as a shining example of a God-given ability (for how could any of us find this within ourselves unless we have been given the grace to offer this to others?) to transcend this personal pain and in its place put compassion and a genuine love for humanity.
Which leads me on to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee – instituted by Mandela. I stand in awe at the bravery of asking victims to have the courage and the dignity (that word again, associated with Mandela) to confront their former attackers, those who had murdered wives, husbands, children, brothers, sisters – and in return for confessing, these same attackers were offered amnesty? How could that be fair? Is this not the same as Jesus saying from the cross: ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23: 34.) It is up to God to judge – and by shining a light on those past misdeeds, allowing those stories to be told, and perhaps for the first time, allowing those perpetrators to seek (and offer) genuine forgiveness, a spirit of reconciliation and unity was fostered. More powerfully perhaps than I can ever realise from the outside. But just seeing a glimpse of this on a documentary tonight has immense power – and had at the time.
As a teacher, a lot of what I am concerned about is how I lead the young people in my care (my aim to guide and encourage, to be a figurehead without claiming that I am the model, to exercise authority without squashing the spirit.) Mandela did this with aplomb, in one seminal moment at the Rugby World Cup held in South Africa in 1995. Appearing in Springbok kit, the badge of a sport previously seen as and owned by the white South Africans, Mandela made more than a symbolic gesture towards the whole of his nation. As president, this was a shrewd political move, certainly – but no less potent and full of significance. Yes, white people could cheer for Mandela too. The whole nation could.
And what since then? My grown-up self has continued to admire and have real affection for the playfulness of a man who spent so much of his life in ‘serious’ things but whose spirit remained young. But also to admire the sheer resilience and hard work of a man who into his 90s was still working for causes he believed in, when other men may have taken things easy, decided they had done enough – for education, for young people, for AIDS, working against oppression in any form, to make poverty history – you name it.
A truly great man – embodying God at work in our world. Rest in peace, Madiba.
And to return to my title: no more heroes? Oh yes there are … and there will be more to come, as others take up Mandela’s mantle.
(Picture credits: Pic 1: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/jan/31/nelson-mandela-helen-ndude-freedom; Pic 2: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~finde20b/classweb/Templates/peopleandcommittees.html; Pic 3: www.scpr.org.)