I suppose the news from the southern tip of Africa must have reached your shores by now: Nelson Mandela passed away last week. And it’s possible that you might be wondering how it’s affected me, seeing as I’m South African and all.
But I must say, I’ve been hesitant to add my voice to the millions out there already bemoaning his fate and singing his praises. At times like these I’m always wary of the tightrope of saying either too little or too much…
The short version is: to me, Madiba’s passing is big news, but it’s not life-altering news. It hasn’t completely rocked my world or upset my schedule or kept me up at night. I haven’t shed a single tear, and can’t force myself to either.
Yet that doesn’t mean I’m indifferent to his legacy or his effect on my country.
The problem is that I’m too young to remember personally the horrors of apartheid. I grew up in the non-segregated New South Africa. All I recall of that watershed election of South Africa’s first black president was that people were nervous. No one knew how it would turn out, or at least that was the undercurrent I picked up from the adults around me.
It also doesn’t help that I have less than zero interest in politics. It took a long time for me to learn about what Mandela and the other black South Africans suffered under apartheid. I remember finally reading Long Walk to Freedom and being horrified at what previous generations had gotten away with. But by the time I had realised that, it seemed the patched-up Rainbow Nation was well on its way to recovery anyway.
Only much later could I look back at the facts and see how vital Nelson Mandela was in bringing about that relatively peaceful change from white supremacy to multiracial equality.
And now that pivotal role player is done with this short slice of his eternity, and everyone has something to say about it.
On the one hand I feel I have no right to throw in my two cents’ worth, considering that this was all a bit before my time. But on the other hand there is truth in what people say, that Tata Madiba did what he did (amazingly!) for all the people of South Africa.
Unlike the presidents before and after him, he made it clear that no matter our skin colour, we all have equal value because of our shared humanity and our heritage in this beautiful country. His goal wasn’t supression of whites to get revenge for the oppression of blacks.
In that way, I respect what he did and I’m grateful that God used this freedom fighter in such a way that even I, as a whitey, can reap the benefits of his long, hard struggle for South Africa. He certainly deserves his title as ‘father of our nation’.
But as I close, I must admit there’s another side to all of this too. For one thing, I’m slightly incredulous at how devastated so many people seem to be by Madiba’s death. As if it took them by surprise. As if we hadn’t had ages to prepare ourselves for the inevitable passing of a weak, tired, sick old man. Did they really think he was going to live forever?
And I’m more than a little uncomfortable with the virtual deification of this man. Honour and respect and lament is definitely his due, but worship is not. Mandela was after all just a human like the rest of us. Not a saint, not a god. He was sinful and in need of a saviour just like you and me.
So I’m trying to keep that in perspective as the world mourns his passing and celebrates his successes. I like the way Albert Mohler has put it in his blog post on the topic; I couldn’t have summed it up better myself 🙂