Imagine the world a hundred years ago. Nations were still at war in what was World War 1, a carnage that started in July 1914 and ended in November 1918. Colonialism was still alive and white political power was evident in most of the world. So was the subjugation of people who were not white. This country was known as the Union of South Africa, which was formed in 1910 in the aftermath of the Second Anglo Boer or South African War that was fought between the British the two Boer Republics.
The agreements reached to form the Union made provision for four provinces. This province was one of them and was known as Natal. Each of these provinces effectively gave black people a status equal to nothing. For them it was a time of despair, poverty, slavery, exploitation and a dark future. Despite this black South Africans fought for king and country in the First World War and suffered casualties.
In 1917 the SS Mende went down near the Isle of Wight in one of the biggest maritime disasters of World War I. A total of 600 men, the majority of them black, drowned. At least 200 were rescued. The next year in Palestine, the Cape Corps defeated a Turkish force in the battle of Square Hill. These sacrifices were not enough to earn political rights for black people.
Into these times of white hegemony was born in 1918 in the Transkei a boy who was destined to play a decisive role in changing the political face of South Africa, as well as achieve his ambition of achieving freedom in his lifetime.
Who was this boy? As you all know he would have turned 100 on July 18 this year. He was Rolihlahla Mandela, the boy who was raised to become an advisor to a king, but instead became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Much has been written about his leadership, political acumen, imprisonment on Robben Island, marriage to the ANC and marriage to Winnie Mandela, Graca Machel and Evelyn Masse.
If these books that quite rightfully lavish praise on Mandela were to be believed his life was anchored in politics and politics only. But is that true? Let’s look at another side of Mandela. In his 27 years behind bars as a political prisoner, Mandela could not defend himself. He could not counter the propaganda churned out by the apartheid Government that he was a communist, terrorist, atheist or the devil himself.
These lies tried to build the perception that white South Africa was safer with Mandela in jail. Under these conditions it was not surprising that those defending Mandela were holding the position that the South African political situation could only be resolved if the South African government negotiated with a free Mandela.
In the battle between the regime and ANC of creating and feeding a particular narrative of Mandela, the truth about his spirituality somehow disappeared. After his release from prison in 1990, Mandela mostly also kept quiet in public about his spiritual beliefs.He had several reasons for this. Among them were the examples set by the previous government, which said it was a Christian one while its policies were anything but. As President he also sought to be a President for all. But in keeping quiet about his beliefs he was following the Methodist way of letting his deeds speak for him.
But what did he believe in? What kept him going when he was cut off from his wife, children, family, friends and the African mainland? What made him such a strong advocate of reconciliation after his release? What made him take Holy Communion as a prisoner and also as a free man? What made him insist that those who came knocking his door while conducting South Africa’s census should name his denomination as Methodist? Indeed what made him insist that the final act at his funeral ceremony should be conducted by his friend Bishop Don Dabula in the traditional Methodist way?
It was his unshakable Christian faith and his association with the Methodist Church that his mother Fanny was the first to nurture. His guardian, the Acting Regent of the Thembu people, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the dedicated Methodist who took the young Mandela under his wings after the death of his father Henry Gadla, also played a big part in shaping Mandela’s spiritual development.
It suited the minority Government’s narrative to mislead the world about Mandela’s deep spiritual beliefs. Let’s look at what happened far away from the public eye. In the Spiritual Mandela I wrote about an interview that Mandela had with reporters from the conservative American newspaper the Washington Times. The South African Government allowed them to interview him in Pollsmoor prison. It was clear later that there was an agenda for allowing the interview. It was to portray him in a negative light. Mandela said in interview that he was not a communist. But they reported that he was.
The then head of the prison Brigadier Munro sat in on the interview. He did not stand up for Mandela when the distortion was published in the US and picked up by the Sunday Times in South Africa.
Two priests, one a Methodist Dudley Moore and the other an Anglican Harry Wiggett, publicly took up the cudgels on his behalf. They informed South Africans of the political prisoner whom they had served Holy Communion at Pollsmoor Prison. Off course one cannot talk about Mandela’s spirituality without bringing in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Allow me as I conclude to share my views about part of the duties of the clergy in the country we live in. I believe you made a mistake when you silenced yourselves and took away an important moral voice when you withdrew from public life. I’m happy that you’ve found your voice again. Please don’t fall silent again. You’ve seen what politicians get up to when the clergy go quiet. Civil society needs you. South Africa needs you.
We need more examples of how you refuse to accept that the Government’s way is the correct way. Do I have to remind you of one of the ways in which the clergy made its point about being an independent voice?
Mandela was involved. But it was a dead Mandela, who showed that even in death he could inspire. Childishly the governing party had tried to humiliate and muzzle Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu by not allowing him to officially be a part of the funeral proceedings. At one stage the Archbishop publicly declared he would not attend the funeral of his friend.
When sanity prevailed and he attended the occasion it was the Reverend Vido Nyabole who made a place for him among the collection of religious leaders. As he told me in an interview he didn’t know that the Arch would be there but when he saw him he opened up space. That was leadership. We need more of this. We need you to be part of the debate on the society that we want.
I believe you and other religious leaders would be failing in your mandate if you do not speak up on behalf of millions of South Africans who still find themselves trapped in poverty, hunger, informal settlements and staring at a bleak future a 100 years after Mandela was born.
As the clergy you have a duty to warn about the growing anger among our people. You need to be there with them and warn society that the tone of their reaction is getting more strident as they continue to be locked out of and starved of the fruits of freedom. This while a small group is on a looting frenzy that seems to say: we are the champions we can do it better than the National Party. You need to warn that the better life that the ANC once promised was meant for all and not for a few.
Have we exchanged white rulers for looters who happen to be black? This is not right: not after the end of colonialism and apartheid. I am also convinced you need to embrace reconciliation between different groups because racism is an evil force that can destroy the country that Mandela and others dreamed of. We need your voice to be heard by those in power. You did it in an undemocratic era. Do it again.
Dennis Cruywagen is the author of The Spiritual Mandela as well as Brothers in War and Peace.