Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mandela: Personal and Historical Perspective

The events of Nelson Mandela’s death and burial this week conjure up a personal historical perspective.  In the late ‘70’s and throughout the ‘80’s I lived in Kenya.  Still in the grips of the Cold War, the U.S. and their allies were forever pitted against the Soviet Union and their agents.   The West was against the African National Congress (ANC), not so much for their desire to be free but their allegiance to the ongoing global tussle between the political superpowers and the ideologies they supported.  Nelson Mandela was imprisoned because of his actions as, depending on your perspective, a terrorist or a freedom fighter.  It’s pretty easy to see history 40 years after the fact, but not so clearly in the midst of the struggle.

My wife and I boarded a plane for Johannesburg in 1980 to visit friends working in South Africa.  We were granted a visa, but asked the embassy not to stamp our visa in our passports.  Having a South African visa stamped in your passport during the days of apartheid was very much like having a visa stamped from Israel.  Travelers with an Israeli visa would have problems entering other Middle East countries and those with South African visas would have restrictions living or visiting other African countries.

Flying south from Kenya, the pilot announced over the intercom that we were then flying over Rhodesia.  He caught himself, and said, “Sorry, they have changed the name of this country recently, we are flying over Zimbabwe.”  The pilot went on to explain that the capital was no longer Salisbury but Harare.  Robert Mugabe had been elected the new president and I remember vividly the debate on Rhodesia independence with one commentator saying, “In Africa, ‘One man, one vote means one time.’” That turned out to be true for Zimbabwe as Mugabe has remained in power for now 43 years and has been internationally condemned for human rights abuse and bringing his country to financial ruin. 

Mugabe was not the only example of African despots.  Our neighbor to the west, Idi Amin had nearly destroyed Uganda and the fighting was still going on while we were flying to Johannesburg.  Gaddafi was the tyrant of the north in Libya, and Mboutu, as the father of the independent Zaire, was already head of state for 15 years and continued until 1997, embezzling millions of dollars from his poor nation.

Of course not all African leaders were tyrants.  Our own first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, came out of prison to lead a peaceful transition in independence.  Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, also, was one African president who led his nation well. 

As stated earlier, history is clearly seen after-the-fact, but during the ‘80’s the question was real.  Would Mandela be a Kenyatta or a Mugabe?  No one knew and it’s a bit disingenuous to criticize the skeptics of four decades back.

History clearly shows that Nelson Mandela followed a closer pattern of Kenyatta than Amin or Mugabe.  It is, therefore, right that we honor this man for the sense of forgiveness and willingness to move his country on the pathway of peace after his imprisonment.  Many of his ANC members, including his then wife Winnie, were not so forgiving and used their newfound freedom and power to murder and try to divide the country.  To Mandela’s credit, his example won over his detractors on both sides of the political landscape.  Mandela went beyond the good examples of Kaunda or Moi (who succeeded Kenyatta after his death) in that he stepped away from power after serving as president only five years.

The eulogies of Nelson Mandela today are lofty and deserved.  He was a remarkable man in many ways.  But one comment that caught my attention today was one reporter who said, “Mandela was not a religious man but who was spiritual.”  I’ve never really understood that term and pretty sure the people who say such things don’t understand it either.  Mandela will be buried in his ancestral village, probably with a traditional African ceremony.  While some liberation theologians might say Mandela had the spirit of Christ, as they sometimes say of Gandhi, he was probably was, at best, a humanist.  If Madiba believed in the faith of his father, who as a village priest, rather than that of his mother, a Methodist, then he would follow more into the category of an animist. 

My thoughts on Nelson Mandela fall right down the middle.  I do not condemn him as a former terrorist, nor do I elevate him to the status of saint.  As a politician he set a good example.  He proved the skeptics wrong that in Africa one man, one vote does not mean one time in every situation.  As a person he was an example of humility and forgiveness, wish that the followers of Christ would display as much.   As to his relation to his Creator, we can only hope he was more than just spiritual.


mark said...

Richard, Thank you for this insightful and meaningful insight to this complicated context and the man, Mandela. As you suggest looking back forty years helps our perspective. My limited work on DRC has allowed me to see the results of corrupt leaders and narcissistic dictators. Our response as people of faith is always to get involved, live lives that are attractive, give more than we take, and leave it better than we received it. Your friend, Mark Szymanski

Billrun said...

Great post Richard. Your years of service for the Master has afforded you ( in several cases), the unique perspective of history and political considerations in addition to the World view that many Christians share. In the midst of the 70's and 80's a young country boy from Arkansas experiences, unknowingly, historical events that give him greater insights 40 years later...How cool is that? How great is our God!
Good Job! Proud of you...Press on...

Jeff and Lucy Osborne said...

Richard, My perspective generally mirrors yours. Because of surgery, I have been in South Africa for the entire time of Mandela's death to the funeral and TV here is running his history (good and bad) 24 hrs/day. Have learned more than I ever knew before. I DO believe this was a very special man, because, more than any other man without Christ, he admirably overcame carnal tendencies to reach the highest (human) levels of integrity and decency. But not a single time in 95 years did he express Christ publicly, which, in my eyes, has meaning. In our striving, everyone should seek to display with sincerity what this true hero displayed. But we, having changed lives and the Holy Spirit's help, do not need to struggle with climbing the steep mountain of integrity and decency that Mandela ascended. Just think what he could have done with the same help that we have