Mandela taught us to forgive but to never forget

Nelson Mandela, assisted by his PA, Zelda le Grange at the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg. 2007. (Photo by Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive)
Nelson Mandela, assisted by his PA, Zelda le Grange at the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg. 2007. (Photo by Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive)

Mandela reframed the binary of victors and victims by towering emotionally and morally over his captors and accusers, writes Chris Jones.

Nelson Mandela International Day, celebrated annually on July 18, gives people right across the globe the opportunity to celebrate Mandela's life, and to recognise their individual power to make an imprint and to change the world around them.

I recently attended a Bishop Lavis Community Partnership Day, where the focus was on sustainable partnerships for development. At the end of the proceedings, in a closing word, Professor Jimmy Volmink, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU), referred to Bryan Stevenson, American lawyer and social justice activist, who lays out four ways to fight for justice and equality.

First, he said, to be a change agent one needs to get proximate. Volmink rephrased this to "immerse", meaning that we have to get closer to and become deeply involved in the issues we are trying to address and the people we are trying to empower. Stevenson says that there is "power in proximity".

The second way to fight for justice, is to change the narratives that sustain unjust practices and policies, especially the false narratives that are sometimes created to justify racial differences and (white) supremacy.

According to Volmink, Stevenson's third solution is to stay hopeful, because hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Without hope and courage, one cannot be a change agent.

Finally, Volmink asked the audience, in the words of Stevenson, to make conscious decisions to do uncomfortable things. These four characteristics of being a change agent, instinctively made me think of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first democratically elected president, whose life was characterised by these four aspects.

While Mandela suffered behind bars, his message became louder and louder. With all the sacrifices he made, he opened the struggle for justice, peace and liberation.

Mandela reframed the binary of victors and victims by towering emotionally and morally over his captors and accusers. Although he was imprisoned for his political beliefs by white captors, he actually "imprisoned his white guards by the sheer force of his moral authority and his political cause", says public intellectual and education expert Prof Jonathan Jansen from SU's Faculty of Education.

After his release, Mandela drew with principled leadership and authority not only black South Africans, but also white and even conservative Afrikaners to him. The same people who put him in prison for 27 years, embraced him, often without question.

I recall a specific part of a masterful and assertive speech he prepared for students on the campus of the University of Pretoria in 1991, but could not deliver on that day because of disruptions caused by some of the students: "Surely you, the Afrikaner, who fought for your freedom from British imperialism, would lose all respect for the African people and the Blacks in general if we just meekly accepted the denial of our rights?" The entire speech is available on the South African History Online webpage.

We know that the miracle of our transition was not only the work of Mandela, but he was not afraid of being a catalyst for change. He influenced so many lives and inspired countless people along the way.

He knew how to forgive, but simultaneously to never forget his troubled past, because, through precisely this, one is helped to understand, learn, and reconcile divided peoples. In his own words, to become "a nation at peace with itself and the world".

Former American president, Barack Obama, once said that Ubuntu is one word "that captures Mandela's greatest gift: His recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us … He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves."

With Mandela no longer among us, what should we do to honour his legacy and continue the work that he started?

I think a good starting point would be to always remember the role individual leaders like Mandela and many of his contemporaries played in the history of our country, but together with this remembrance, to never dishonour our people by minimalizing their role in their own struggles for freedom and justice.

By not taking ownership of our struggles on an ongoing basis, we shall be imprisoned all over again, leaving us at the mercy of new ideologies of domination, manipulation, and dispossession.

Having said this, we must be careful not to re-create Mandela in our own self-protecting, self-justifying image. Making him the hiding place of our unfulfilled promises to the poor and weak, and portraying him as the ever-rising wall behind which we hide the shamelessness of our self-indulgence and greed, and taking refuge against the growing anger of the destitute and the wronged as cleric and anti-apartheid activist Dr Allan Boesak once argued.

Off course, we stand upon the shoulders of leaders like Mandela, but the struggle for good and corrupt-free governance; to contribute to the social and economic security of citizens; and to secure a free press and an independent, efficient judiciary, will always belong to us, the people.

Mandela's legacy should give us hope. Too many of us have become despondent, blaming others and forgetting our own responsibility. We must continue creating a South Africa worthy of its sacrifices.

In this regard, Leon Wessels, co-writer of our Constitution, makes the important point: "We all come from a broken past, but we have to build a future on that past. A better future, not a better past".

- Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 


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