The news of President Nelson Mandela's death comes as no surprise, yet the thought of his absence in my homeland fills me with all sorts of emotions.
First, there is deep, deep gratitude.
I was 17 years old when the first “free and fair” election took place, closing South Africa’s rough chapter of apartheid. The end of oppression in countries close to us, like Mozambique, resulted in violent bloodshed. Could South Africa expect anything different after so many years of oppression?
Most of us white Afrikaans families expected the worst. We could feel the anger rising in the streets like a tide ready to wash the oppressors away. I remember packing stacks of tinned food in our cupboard for when the world would go belly-up. And yet Mandela knew that, though revenge may provide momentary satisfaction, he did not want to repeat the pattern of oppression. He believed in an inclusive future and he did his damndest best to help our country create it.
There is some relief.
Nelson had an incredibly rich life. A difficult life. A painful life. A life of struggle, perseverance, heartbreak, sorrow, miracles and joy. After this life journey and long sickness, the only thing I want for him is to let go and disappear into whatever stillness and kindness the rest of the world beyond ours has to offer.
There's a big heap of sadness.
The incredible gift of Mandela’s life was to show our country a new way of being in this world. He demonstrated what it means to see the value in every person, no matter how poorly they treated him. He learned to look through the violent and cruel behavior to see another human being worthy of his respect and capable of acting with care and kindness. And his unbending belief in the goodness of each person pulled that goodness out of them, no matter how deeply it was buried under the rubble of past hurts or cultural lies.
It made me so hopeful to see this during my lifetime. And it makes me so sad that, at least now, it seems like he is still an anomaly. A great leader that we were so privileged to have had. A great leader whose chapter has come to a close.
But I'm angry...
It may be a long time until we see more peace-making Nelson Mandelas in our world as our current culture mold us to fit existing power structures. We grow up assuming roles of the dominant oppressor and subservient oppressed.
How many more times will we keep quiet in conversations when our true selves long to speak the truth, to challenge the status quo? How many times will we refuse to offer kindness – be it to our tired selves or to some part of society we pretend doesn’t exist? How much longer will we make enemies in our minds, and talk badly about people we have never tried to understand? For how much longer will we allow our past pains and anger barricade the road to forgiveness? How many more years of oppression will it take before we wake up to the fact that we are the world?
And, with anger, comes hope.
In every day and with every decision, we have a choice. We can choose to perpetuate the patterns of the past or to become the change we want to see. We carry within us the capacity to be a Nelson Mandela to our world. As we give voice to the truth inside us, the lies that keep oppression standing falter. As we offer kindness and compassion, our world becomes a kinder place. As we reach out of our segregated world and make meaningful contact with that those that are different than us, our world becomes more integrated. As we mend our relationship with past pains, we find the generosity to befriend parts of life we have labelled enemies. As we heal and mend, our world heals and mends. As we learn about the goodness we carry inside us, we can recognize and call it forth in the world around us.
If I were to hug him before he left earlier today, I’d say: Thank you, Madiba, for showing us a way out of oppression that transcends violent power or anaemic sympathy. Your way is built on the belief that every human being is an equal and everyone carries within them the capacity to be a strong, kind, loving and generous human being. Thank you for teaching us to always look for that in those who see themselves as oppressors or as oppressed.
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