I wake this morning shell shocked. I find myself experiencing a delayed reaction to the death of Nelson Mandela. Yesterday, as I heard the news of Mandela’s death the shock of that news didn’t fully hit me. I think it’s because I didn’t want to accept the painful reality that a blazing light of hope for a kinder and more just world, is no longer here to be an ambassador for that noble cause.
I prayed about how all of us could best honour the memory of this great man, who taught us all to love one another, who did not allow 27 years of imprisonment to fill him with bitterness and revenge. I think if Nelson was to have a voice in the way he is to be remembered, he would tell us all to fly like the eagle. He would say that no dream is too small. If like Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Mahatmas Gandhi and now a teenage girl named Malala Yousafzai could all have the courage to call us to live in a world of love for all, that should inspire all of us to live like them.
I know if they could send a message to you that was personally designed for you, it would be to not listen to the lies of the voices of hatred, but to the spirit of love that can live and reign in all of us.
I was deeply grieved when I learned of the death of my journalism professor, mentor, and forever friend, Rev. Will Rooen a few months ago. Yet, he would tell me and all of us that the death of Nelson Mandela is a call for all of us to life. Not a half-hearted and half-committed kind of life. Not a life of mediocrity, of being quiet about the injustices we see around us. All of us are called to make a difference in this world, to make our lives count for something. Will taught all of us blessed by his teaching to be truth speakers and participants in coming up with solutions to community problems.
A wise friend advised me that the greatest changes can happen through community advocacy. We are not all called to be world changers like Nelson Mandela. He and all who spoke with courage and conviction about societal injustice would all tell us that real change happens as we change ourselves.
Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” That means real change for our communities and our world begins with me, you and all of us becoming the best me we can be. Mandela realized that his initial call to his people out of frustration and anger that they would have to fight for what they wanted with violence was wrong. That call came from how he was hurting for the people he was called to lead. In prison he learned the important lesson to forgive and to call his people to do the same.
That must have been really hard to do. How many of us would come out of 27 years of being wrongfully imprisoned to forgive the very people who put us there? Wouldn’t you be filled with a seething rage to get even, to have your revenge for all the years you spent confined as a prisoner? Mandela took the higher ground, that long and difficult pathway to forgiveness. From forgiveness he called his people and all of us to take the road less traveled to forgive our oppressors and even make friends of them.
During Mandela’s 18 years of imprisonment on Robben Island he was a class- D prisoner, which was a classification reserved for the lowest of the low . Quoting from an article by Swati Thiyagarajan on NDTV.com:
“Standing outside the cell that used to house him and seeing its pitiful 8X7 feet dimensions, the iron bucket that served as a toilet and the thin blankets that served as bed, it struck me as extraordinary that he spent 18 years here without succumbing to despair and hatred.
Classified as a ‘D-class’ prisoner, he was treated as the lowest of the low, was prevented from wearing anything but a pair of shorts for the first few years and only allowed one visitor a year. This perhaps was one of the hardest things for a man who loved family and community. He was not even allowed to attend the funerals of his mother and his son.
The black prisoners were also treated worse than their coloured and Asian counterparts. They were given less food to eat and never given bread which was distributed to the other prisoners. This was done in order to create dissent amongst prisoners and keep them divided.
Every day, the prisoners had to work in the lime quarry, breaking stones from dawn to dusk. Guards armed with guns and dogs would keep a watch on them. A small cave cut into the lime stone walls served as their toilet. Again, instead of letting this break them, Mandela organised this time into an informal university and ensured that prisoners talked and learnt from each other. Many smuggled books and newspaper articles were hidden in the soft sand of their makeshift loo where they knew the guards would never look. Mandela said he would never allow Robben Island to be seen as a place of despair. Rather, he wanted it to be seen as the place of the triumph of the human spirit.”
The triumph of the human spirit. I think that one phrase best sums up what Nelson Mandela was all about. As he triumphed over his own hatred for all the beatings, murders, and the intolerable indignity he and his people suffered through the viciousness and ignorance of apartheid, Madiba called all of us to forgive those who hurt and even despise us.
I will let Nelson Mandela have the last word.
“ As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
So, my dear friends, be that light. Be that light and fly like the eagle as you dream and take others with you to theirs. That’s what Madiba would have wanted.