Mandela hopes for and dreams of freedom, and for him freedom is not a grandiose idea or a magnificent ideal. It is the simple needs of God’s little people to live in peace in their own homes, not to go hungry, to have dignity…
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THE ONE WHO LINKS US TO ALL WHO SUFFER
By Allan Boesak, penned December 21, 2012
Madiba’s recent illness, the rabid speculations it triggered around the world, the tumultuous politics of the ANC’s election politics and the uncertainties facing us in the future have prompted me to think again on the legacy of this man who is still in our midst as we enter the closing days of this year. Mandela’s words in the citation above are as good a point as any to meditate upon this man and his meaning for us.
As Nelson Mandela sits in the village of his boyhood, Qunu in the Eastern Cape, growing old as its ancient hills, he dreams dreams for his country, his continent, and the world. As with the biblical Joseph at the end of his life, those dreams are neither reminiscences nor grudges, they are hopes for South Africa, the African continent and for the world.
Mandela hopes for and dreams of freedom, and for him freedom is not a grandiose idea or a magnificent ideal. It is the simple needs of God’s little people to live in peace in their own homes, not to go hungry, to have dignity.
It is their dreams of having dignity, worth, hopes, security, peace and belonging. Dreams to be at home, surely, but to be at home in the country of one’s love and in a world in which justice and peace have found a home.
Mandela turns his mind not to the grandiloquent speeches of those the world considers great. He turns to the simple dreams of those whom the world does not regard; those of unimpressive proportions who have no strength or permission to speak, but whose wounds speak for them.
In doing this he reminds us that the shape of a just world lies in the fulfilment of the hopes of the poor and powerless, the silenced and the downtrodden, not the elites whose wealth has flourished beyond their wildest dreams even as they trample upon the dreams of the poor.
Mandela might be the revered “father of the nation”, the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa. He might have seen the dawn after the long night of oppression, and he has indeed seen power wrested from the hands of the apartheid oppressor. But with clarity of mind and integrity of heart he knows his people are not yet free from hunger, fear and the indignity of an unfulfilled life.
Nearly at the end of his life, he sees his nation and the world through the eyes of those whose suffering has still not ended. As he sits in Qunu, he really does not want for anything. He too has been given far beyond his wildest dreams. But he looks at the world not from his place of secured glory, but as a hope-filled captive of ubuntu.
My humanity and my human wellbeing is caught up in your humanity. I cannot be what I want to be until you are what you need to be. The fulfilment of my dreams is measured by the contentment of your lives. So he dreams, even though his dream might affront those who so fervently claim his name in the creation of a “new South Africa”. Because that’s what dreams of hope and justice are: an affront to an unjust status quo.
As he grows old, he does not look back in self-satisfaction. He does not wallow in or claim merit for his suffering those 27 years he spent needlessly in prison. He does not bemoan the fact that his eyes have grown weak because of the dust of the stones he was forced to break on Robben Island.
He does not cuddle the grudges he may rightfully hold: the countless humiliations that come with imprisonment; that he missed his family, that he regrets the swift passage of the unforgiving years that made him an old man when he finally regained his freedom.
He does not curse apartheid’s cruel rulers who forced him into a choice for violence when all peaceful efforts were crushed, or vent his anger at the white judges who condemned him as a terrorist when he fought for the freedom of his people.
He knows that the masses who love him have suffered with him and on his behalf every step of that long walk to freedom.
He does not begrudge nor regret the fact that he offered white South Africans forgiveness even if it now looks as if they did not all deserve it. He does not retract his magnanimity in the face of their unrepentant intractability. He does not rage against those in his own circles who abuse his name and his legacy for personal and political gain. His love remains constant for all his people.
Mandela does not indulge in reminiscences: how the world saw in him an icon of the struggles of all freedom-loving people; how they once made him into a demigod who could do no wrong; how he was admired as the greatest statesman of our times. He knows it is now time for greater, purer things.
As he grows ancient as Qunu’s hills, he does not narrow his look toward his birthplace or his country or his own people, as old people are allowed to do. There is a wideness in his gaze that takes in all the world as he hopes for freedom from fear, from hunger, from indignity for all God’s children in all of God’s world.
Despite the disappointments and bewilderments that any long life brings, he does not give up on politics, but hopes that the politics of justice may become the hope of not just the people but the guiding light of those who hold power entrusted to them by the poor.
He hopes for “a cadre of leaders” who will work for freedom, security and justice, and he speaks of these in simple, human terms: freedom, refugees, hunger, and dignity. And as he speaks he remembers in the only way that is authentic: “As we were…”
The words, “as we were”, are a reminder that it is the people’s hopes that matter, that will bring hope to our politics. Mandela knows that inasmuch as it is possible to speak of a South African miracle, that miracle did not fall out of thin air, nor was it the calculated outcome of those highly-praised secret negotiations. It was, in a real sense, the fruit of struggle and suffering, of faith and sacrifice.
“As we were” plants Mandela firmly in the tradition of centuries of struggle, in the midst of a people who knew, in the most tragic circumstances, and understood Sol Plaatje: “The one thing that stands between us and despair is the fact that Heaven has not yet deserted us.”
He speaks from the heart of a people who understood with Albert Luthuli that struggle was never easy, that the road to freedom is always via the Cross. People who believed with Steve Biko that we struggle for justice because we need to bestow on Africa and the world the greatest of all gifts: a human face.
“As we were” reminds us that the Freedom Charter, whose spirit guides our Constitution, was born of the pain of suffering as well of the joy of faith.
“South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” Those were not words of empty optimism or shallow bravado. Spoken in 1955 in the face of a regime determined to subdue, subject and suppress, they were words of defiant hope in the midst of death, denying hatred, vengeance, hopelessness and despair any place in our country or in our hearts.
“As we were” recalls the millions who believed that our struggle for justice should not just be for ourselves but a “blessing for humankind”, as Robert Sobukwe believed.
It recalls those who stood up in the defiance campaigns of the 1950s; those who died in the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and in the streets of confrontation since; Steve Biko and the bright young minds who helped shape our philosophy of Black Consciousness in the 1970s and helped us to stand tall and proud.
The words recall the brave youth of Soweto who marched in 1976, inspired a whole new generation across the country and forever changed the shape of the struggle. They recall the unstoppable, nonracial masses who formed the United Democratic Front and stormed the gates of apartheid’s citadels in the 1980s.
With the words, “as we were”, Mandela places himself and the people of South Africa in the midst of the global community – wherever there is injustice, pain, struggle, and wherever people still seek hope and find her in their stride toward freedom.
So is this the answer to the question: how do we protect our politicians against the corruption of the empire once they sit in the seat of power, so that they seem to understand their call to justice only when they leave office, as we have seen over and over again?
Perhaps it is possible, if we insist that when we trust them with our votes and our lives, vest them with our power, that they in turn trust us with helping them to keep their promises and their hopes, their vision and their legitimacy. If President Obama can return to the people and call on them for help in his struggle against Republicans for a fairer tax system, why can’t he call on them for help on the greater, more fundamental issues: to end war, to eradicate poverty, to create justice?
Our politicians who believe in the politics of hope and justice – Mandela’s “cadre of leadership” – if their first instincts would be to trust and respond to the people who vested them with power, instead of seeking the false safety of the empire who they think must keep them in power, the nature of our politics may change. Would that not be a different kind of participatory democracy?
It is the hopeful people who will keep them true to what they believe, and it is only the people who can give meaning to the phrase, “we are in this together”.
Perhaps then too we would understand better former president Thabo Mbeki’s wise words about the difficulties facing Africa. “The challenge we face cannot reside merely in the recognition and acknowledgement of what is wrong. Principally it consists in answering the question correctly: What must be done to ensure that the right thing is done?”
So, instead of mindlessly deifying Mandela, as the world has so consistently done, thereby making his acts of magnanimity and justice unattainable and his words of hope meaningless for “ordinary” human beings, the world might simply try to learn from the life of this man who now refers to himself as “ancient as the hills of Qunu” that old hatreds do not pass of their own volition. They have to be challenged and overcome by the power of love and the resilience of reconciliation.
The lines of tribe will not dissolve on their own: they have to be overcome by our belief in and work for our common humanity. In turn, that common humanity will only reveal itself in the undoing of injustice and the doing of justice, the embrace of our diversity in dignity and respect and our common concern for the wellbeing of the Earth.
A new era of peace will be not be ushered in on the wings of historical inevitabilities, but through the hard work for the ending of war, aggression, terror and the idolatrous worship of violence as the solution to all our problems. It is work we shall do together, and not give up “until justice and peace embrace”.
Perhaps as well we shall do well to remember that in all this work we shall not look for approval from the powerful or even for admiration from the powerless, but humbly accept that what we are doing is for the humanisation of the world. And that, after all, is why we are here.
Allan Boesak holds The Desmond Tutu Chair of Peace, Global Justice and Reconciliation Studies at Christian Theological Seminary and Butler University and serves as Theologian in Residence at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor ConferenceDownload SDPC Official Tribute