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December 9, 2013

Archbishop Desmond Tutu Shares a Memory of Nelson Mandela

The Archbishop discusses what it was like in the early days after Nelson Mandela was released and lived at Bishop’s Court. The Archbishop further describes Nelson Mandela’s character as a leader and as a man. Video footage from the Sir David Frost Interview

December 8, 2013

In Memory of Nelson Mandela

My post today has very few words. Nelson Mandela died yesterday at 95. Here are two beautiful and wise clips about him.

The first video is from CNN and is a retrospective by Christine Amanpour The second, also from CNN, is Mandela in his own words.

Last night, understandably, the media was filled with words remembering and honoring a human being the likes of who appears not once in a lifetime but once every few lifetimes. Some figures genuinely change history because of how evolved, pragmatic, and enlightened they are. Mandela was one of these people. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel resentment and anger and even hate about the years that were taken from him and especially the time as a parent for his children – he was no saint – but he exercised a powerful will to overcome his bitterness. He said that he walked into prison hotheaded and intemperate and came out mature.

It was a miracle that in 1994 rather than a civil war blood bath there was a historic democratic election that united blacks, Indians, and whites. Mandela went from prisoner to President and somehow held together personal loyalty to enemies of the West, like Khadafy and Castro and Arafat who supported the ANC when no one in the West did, while insuring that the post Apartheid South Africa was firmly aligned with the values of freedom and democracy of the West. He was a revolutionary and a traditionalist and perhaps his most profound capacity was his ability to understand and even empathize with the enemy. Mandela is proof that by force of one’s own choice and dignity one can compel even your enemy to respect you.

How do we honor his legacy? Can we be guided by our hopes and not our fears? Can we believe that human beings and countries can change for the better?

Enough words. Mandela once said, “The silence of solitude makes us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.”

Jewish Wisdom teaches that the highest form of praise is silence. So I ask this for us to reflect upon: What enables people to become better rather than bitter? Nelson Mandela’s memory will be a blessing but will we be worthy of remembering Nelson Mandela?

Addendum: Not sure you will get this on the mainstream media. My daughter Talia, who lived in Soweto, South Africa for seven weeks this past summer just called me. “Abba, the second I heard Mandela died I felt really really sad and I immediately called my friend Cpho (who lives in Soweto and became Talia’s best friend).” Cpho told Talia that older people who experienced Mandela’s presence and leadership were very somber while the next generation – her generation – were celebrating his life. Such different forms of grieving both of which so respectful and genuine. We live in the very beginning of a world whose boundaries are more permeable than ever in history.

Note:  This article was originally published in The Daily Wisdom, December 6, 2013.

December 7, 2013

The Real Lessons We Should Learn from Mandela

Nelson Mandela’s luminous presence shines radiantly. As a young white South African in the ninety-seventies I was captivated by his moral authority that no jail could imprison. In a world of leaders captive to tribal, religious or identity politics Mandela points to a more fulsome arc of inclusion.

As a college student involved in anti-apartheid activity I would sit on Signal Hill in Cape Town and look across the bay to the desolate isolation of Robben Island, Mandela’s prison home. It was the high security prison where Mandela and other leading black anti-apartheid activists were incarcerated.

Designed to break their spirit and crush the anti-apartheid movement Mandela transformed it into a school of leadership for the day when freedom arrived. The hardship of brutal prison conditions became a school of hope for what might be.

In my college years I worked as a freelance correspondent for a shortwave radio station which beamed stories from Ethiopia and then Zambia into the tightly government controlled media world of South Africa. At the time it was illegal to own Mandela’s writings, which were banned, and a criminal offense to portray his image in public.

My anxiety and nervousness about smuggling those writings back into South Africa were high every time I did that while crossing the border form recording interviews in neighboring countries.

His vision of a democratic country based not on tribal, racial or identity politics, but on the need for the full participation of all filled me with exhilaration.

It seemed ironic that the government at the time labeled him a “communist” in order to win backing to support apartheid’s antithetical philosophy from Western powers in the Cold War era.

I remember exactly what I was doing — leading a church service — on February 11, 1990 when Mandela was released from prison and appeared before tens of thousands of people on the balcony of Cape Town’s City Hall with his friend Desmond Tutu.

Joined by a global television audience Mandela offered a vision of democratic unity that stood in sharp contrast to the violently enforced racism of apartheid. “Our long march to freedom is irreversible” he declared. Like many, I was incredulous, at his release and the instantaneous way in which he became a global voice of moral authority.

At the end of that year I returned to visit South Africa with some skepticism about the new era.

Arriving in Johannesburg I discovered the once banished images and words of Mandela emblazoned on the front page of every newspaper which carried his New Year’s message. Around me were inter-racial couples freely holding hands. When I left South Africa in 1980 they would have been arrested and imprisoned for a love that crossed the legal boundaries of the country.

In the intervening years leading up to South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 when Mandela was elected as president, a commission created a new constitution for the country. The framers included representatives of his African National Congress and other anti-apartheid organizations, the old apartheid regime, trade unionists, feminists, those involved in the cause of gay rights among others. The country’s religious pluralism was represented.

In the Mandela spirit, the “spoils of victory” were not celebrated by exclusion but by inclusion.

The resulting constitution, widely regarded as a model of constitutional law, reflects Mandela’s vision of a nation with no outcasts among its citizens. Unique among constitutions, it enshrines protections for children, women and gay and lesbian South Africans among others.

The irreversible march to freedom is a freedom for all.

In a bold move untried anywhere else in the world, President Mandela and Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu envisioned a Truth and Reconciliation Commission – a pro-active move to avoid the politics of vengeance. Chaired by Tutu, any South African could apply for amnesty from civil and criminal charges if they public confessed to and asked for forgiveness for any actions to sustain or overthrow the apartheid system.

Mandela never lost sight of the ordinary small actions of individuals for transforming even the most brutal of situations.

In 1998 I participated with him in a memorial service in New York City to celebrate the life of Trevor Huddleston. The service was scheduled so that Mandela could be present to honor this humble man – an English monk and priest whose book, “Naught for Your Comfort,” revealed for the first time to many people the brutality and moral bankruptcy of apartheid.

Mandela’s affection for Huddleston was palpable and the message was clear that every action taken in pursuit of human oneness and freedom matters.

When in South Africa I often visit Robben Island and the stone quarry there that Mandela was forced to labor in. Today it is a shrine pointing to unimaginable hardship giving way to hope.

At his 90th birthday in 2010 Mandela spoke about the cause of freedom that his life has been committed to.

“After 90 years of life, it is time for new hands to lift the burdens” he said. “It is in your hands” now.

In an era where so many are cynical about leaders who seek to divide, Nelson Mandela’s legacy is anything but frail. It is an invitation to realize that inclusive freedom for all is in our hands.

December 5, 2013

Honoring the Memory of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela passed away at the age of 95 following complications from a persistent lung infection. As the iconic leader of the African National Congress, his determination in the fight against apartheid inspired his followers to persevere until they had achieved victory. Today, millions around the world who are struggling for freedom are inspired anew by his example. But perhaps his greatest achievement may have been the spirit of reconciliation that he fostered after being elected President of South Africa.

Mandela became actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement and joined the African National Congress in 1942. For 20 years, he directed a campaign of defiance against the South African government and its racist policies. In 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as the country’s first black president.

For his activities opposing apartheid, he spent 27 years in prison, including 18 years at the notorious Robben Island facility. In No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu wrote of that time, “Those twenty-seven years were the fires of the furnace that tempered his steel, that removed the dross. Perhaps without that suffering, he would have been less able to be as compassionate and magnanimous as he turned out to be. And that suffering on behalf of others gave him an authority and credibility that can be provided by nothing else in quite the same way.” His ability to forgive his tormentors was demonstrated during his inauguration when he invited his white jailer to attend as his honored guest. This attitude of forgiveness helped to transition the country peacefully to a democracy whose constitution protected the rights of all South Africans.

South Africa still has some distance to go to achieve full economic and political balance among its citizens. The first generation of South Africans who have grown up free of apartheid is now entering adulthood. The example set by Nelson Mandela will certainly serve as a powerful guide for how they will use their freedom to create their country’s future.