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Mandela inspires a hope for progress

  • December 12, 2013

Reflecting on the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of South Africa, American scholar Rob Nixon wrote: “Between 1964 and 1990 he was absented from the political present, yet remained a pre-eminent inhabitant of South Africa’s past and future. He lived on the cusp of time, embodying a people’s hope, yet monumentalized on a scale ordinarily reserved for the dead.”

Mandela was already a living legend before his death. Now that he has joined his glorious ancestors, it is even harder to speak of him in the past. Many of us Africans see Mandela as one of Africa’s greatest gifts to the world because his story, struggle, sacrifice and values reflect the hopes and aspirations of all humanity in our search for a better world. These values were not invented by Mandela but are rooted in the African philosophy of ubuntu — we are through other people. Mutual responsibility and human fellowship, forgiveness and restorative justice in the face of evil, and caring for each other are some of the golden paths to building a better world.

Mandela was a man of many worlds. He inhabited the sad past of South Africa with its shameful legacy of apartheid and institutionalized racism, and the calculated destruction of one race by another. But he also symbolizes reconciliation and national unity for present day South Africa, which until Mandela’s release from jail in 1990 and his ascendency to the presidency in 1994 was a nation at war with itself. Even in death Mandela inspires hope for progress. He is a man for all ages and his life and message are timeless. He represents the ideals which we all aspire to as individuals and global citizens: that every human being counts and — regardless of colour, social or economic conditions, religious or sexual orientation, gender or nationality, age or physical health — all humans should be prized, not priced. Mandela represents the truth that human freedom and human rights are inalienable and should never be abused.

But Mandela represents something even more: that nations cannot be built on an iniquitous platform of injustice, racism, oppression, dictatorship or laws meant to break the spirit of those who refuse to bow to the false idols and laws of a sinful state. Suffering for Mandela was therapeutic and ultimately redemptive. He drew his strength from a deep spirituality developed over a lifetime: from his ancestral religion in his native Qunu, in a Christian education received in Methodist schools, and his reading of the holy books of Christianity, Judaism and Eastern religions during 27 years of rebirth in jail.

Mother Teresa once remarked that “every human being is something beautiful to God.” This is a fundamental truth of Christian anthropology and Christian humanism especially prominent in the writings of Pope John Paul II, which I believe Mandela modeled in his struggles. Like John Paul II, Mandela lived with his frailty for many years and in the last few years he taught the world that human life should be prized and not priced, and that the aged, the dying and the weak are not a burden, but a blessing. This view of human life is particularly needed in a world sometimes governed by a myth of physical efficiency and productivity in which the coarser elements of neo-liberal capitalism have become the template for many of the world’s economic and social policies. As Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium modern society should listen to the cry of the poor and do something to liberate them. This is at the core of what Mandela represented in his fight for freedom for all South Africans, his defense of those suffering from HIV/AIDS, his rejection of any kind of dictatorship and his efforts to provide health care, housing and fair wages to many dislocated South Africans.

The Mandela story also reveals the possibility of a second chance. He showed that going through deep and dark valleys can actually heal the human spirit and strengthen the human person.

Mandela taught us that we are all victims when anyone on Earth is treated with indignity or denied freedom or equality. He taught us that it is possible to conquer hatred with love, to hold your enemies accountable for their evil acts while at the same time loving them no less because of their crimes.

As South African Nobel prize winner Nadine Gordimer wrote, Mandela is “one of the few who, in contrast with those who have made our 20th century infamous for fascism, racism and war, will mark it as an era that achieved advancement for humanity.”

(Fr. Chu Ilo is on the faculty of the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto.)

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