Nelson Mandela - An Appreciation

March 1960 and a young medical student watched bewildered with others from the windows of the Anatomy Laboratories. Thousands marched from the townships into central Cape Town. It was in silent protest against the Pass Laws and the Sharpeville Massacre days before. They had been organised by Robert Sobukwe and the Pan African Congress, but the name Nelson Mandela was also around. South Africa was in upheaval.  Fellow-students blew up electric pylons, one of them a member of our early morning prayer group. She was jailed. So was Nelson Mandela a couple of years later. They disappeared from our consciousness. We got on with our studies.

The need for change in South Africa was self-evident. How best to achieve it, was the question. By the 70s, and serving in Zambia, we were experiencing the process of change at a personal level, developing relationships and immense respect for fellow-Zambians. The 80s brought us to London and we watched with concern as events unfolded in an increasingly unsettled South Africa. But in Trafalgar Square we simply ‘passed by on the other side’ of the Free Mandela Campaign. We were, meanwhile, quietly urging Salvation Army leaders to prepare for a post-apartheid South Africa.

Within weeks of our arrival in India in 1990 Nelson Mandela was released. We watched the news on our small black and white screen. I was delighted, knowing it was the beginning of something new, but at the same time feeling a measure of uncertainty as to what might happen. As the years passed the stature of the Nelson Mandela we had not known became fully apparent. Here was a truly great man; someone we too would come to revere. Four years later we received farewell orders, but were told our appointment could not be announced. ‘Your future lies elsewhere than in South Africa,’ we’d been told earlier, so for a couple of months we were left wondering. We watched the Mandela inauguration and prayed for the Army and its future leaders in South Africa. So surprise, surprise when we were told it was to be us.

Our years of leadership in South Africa were an immense privilege, especially given the ‘honeymoon’ period for the Rainbow Nation. Cultivating a process of reflection for the Army and Salvationists that led to a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was part of that. Having a small part in the drafting of the new South African constitution was another. The man influencing much of this was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We got to meet him several times, but I wondered whether I’d ever be able to meet the president himself. He was the one setting the pace.

I thought it would happen when we were told that Ethembeni, the Army’s Home for Orphaned Babies in Johannesburg, had been chosen as the location for the president’s broadcast to the nation on International Aids Day. At the last minute he withdrew, and I ended up in lengthy conversation with Deputy President Mbeki. Then South African Council of Churches General Secretary, Brigalia Bam, called to tell me about a request from the president for a group of church leaders to advise on crime reduction and prevention, but it was Margaret who would go, and not me. She remembered his office in the Union Buildings, recounting his pouring out their rooibos tea and calling for prayer before it began. And we were invited to the Tutu retirement in Cape Town. The president was to be there. Maybe I’d finally have a chance to meet him. I processed down the aisle of St George’s Cathedral with other church leaders and into our seats; the dignitaries came later, President Mandela among them. Surely he’d be at the reception afterwards, I thought, but no, he’d excused himself.

We’ve returned to South Africa several times since. In March 2012 we stood outside the Victor Verster Prison to admire the statue erected at the gates where he took the first steps into freedom. We recalled the concluding words of his autobiography. Margaret had quoted them when responding to a paper given by Commissioner David Edwards at the 1986 Leaders’ Conference: ‘The Road Ahead in a Multi-Cultural World.’ Both had highlighted the importance of cultural understanding for Salvation Army leaders. ‘... When I walked out of prison that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both ... We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and more difficult road ....’

Nelson Mandela has been among those of our times who have inspired both of us greatly. But  our paths have not crossed on the long walk to freedom. It’s said that he joked that one of the first things he was going to do when he got to heaven was to find the nearest ANC office so that he could register there. Come to think of it, I could pop in there too, then I might finally get to meet him.  If I did meet this much-loved South African statesman in heaven , I’d just want to say: 'Thank you'.

December 2013