Above: An illustration from The Last Battle by C S Lewis
Below: A Picture from The Greatest Gift: The Story of Artaban, The Fourth Wise Man
Matthew 25 v 31 – 26 v 5
I wrote the following ‘paraphrase’ after listening to a sermon on this passage in my local (Hungarian) Baptist Church on Sunday. It made me reflect on the words of Jesus and the point of this parable in relation to recent news from various countries. The parable is often used to point to the need for each Christian to take action to help the poor and needy in society, but it seems to me that it’s really more concerned with the responsibility of ‘the nations’ for the poor among them, with the need for us to take collective responsibility for the poor, the sick, the immigrants and the prisoners among us. Viewed in this light it has a fresh, revolutionary meaning for me this Christmas, as well as reminding me of the self-sacrifice of Artaban in the story pictured above. The fourth wise man never gets to see either the infant or the adult King, because he stops to help a sick man as he begins his journey to Bethlehem. At the end of the story, though he is a ‘stranger’ with an oriental religion, he is received into heaven by the ‘Shepherd King’ with the words spoken to the righteous sheep.
“All the nations were gathered before the Shepherd King, who sat on his throne with his great crook and separated out the sheep from the goats. He shepherded the sheep to their left, his right, and blessed them, giving them each a share in his inheritance from his father. They became his ‘Righteous’, for, as he told them:
When I was hot and thirsty, at the height of summer, you gave me a free water bottle. When I was hungry, you invited me to the soup kitchen in the town square. When I was a poor immigrant, you helped me find a job and a place to live, and helped me settle in. When I was on my own, sleeping on the street, you invited me to Christmas lunch at your church. When I was freezing cold, because I had no winter coat, you gave me your old sheepskin coat, which you had donated to a charity. When I was so ill in bed that I could not get up, you came to care for me until I recovered. When I was in prison, you organised a Christmas Party for me and the other inmates.
Pleased, yet puzzled, ‘the Righteous’ asked him:
When did we meet you as an immigrant and invite you in, or gave you a coat, or visited you when you were sick or in prison?
The King replied:
I tell you the truth. Though you had little power, whenever you ministered to our poor and destitute brothers and sisters, you ministered to me.
Then he turned to those on his left, who thought they were among the Righteous. They included government ministers and Members of Parliament, including some bishops. He told them:
You always set yourselves above the people you were chosen to minister to, and in so doing you have set yourselves apart from me. You have chosen your own way, which is different from mine, so your can continue on that way forever. For when I was thirsty, you removed the fountains from the public parks, so I would have nothing to drink there. When I was hungry, because of your policies, you refused to support the food banks set up by the charities to help poor families. When I was an immigrant, looking for honest work, you refused to give me a work permit, even though you had agreed in the Assembly of Nations that you would. When I was freezing on the streets in the Bleak Midwinter, you sent the police to caution me for vagrancy and then had me arrested and sent before the magistrate. She sent me to prison, with the murderers and rapists. At least there I was warm and had a roof over my head, but then you threw me back out on the streets, with no place to go, not even a stable. When I was injured, I found you had closed the local accident and emergency unit, so I had to walk five miles to the nearest hospital. I couldn’t make it, and had no money to call an ambulance, so I died of pneumonia on the way.
They also asked when they had met the King as a thirsty or starving man, or as an immigrant, or as a destitute and injured man, and he answered:
Now I will speak truth to power: You are supposed to be ministers of the state and church, but whenever you failed to minister to the people who gave you power over them, you failed to minister to me.
So the chief minister recalled their Assembly, and they returned to their palace, where they debated how to arrest the King, put him on trial, and execute him without causing a revolution among the growing number of poor their policies had created. They would have to wait until after Christmas was over, so they agreed to meet again in the New Year, and went home to their own mansions for the holiday, determined to ignore the poor in their constituencies.”
English: People eating at a soup kitchen. Montreal, Canada Français : Personnes mangeant dans une soupe populaire. Montréal, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Hosea the prophet, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th cen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Second Sunday in Advent. A ‘topical’ text from Hosea, chapter 12, vv 6-10, 13-14:
‘But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always. The merchant uses dishonest scales; he loves to defraud. Ephraim boasts, “I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin.”
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt; I will make you live in tents again, as in the days of your appointed feasts. I spoke to the prophets, gave them many visions and told parables through them.”
‘The Lord used a prophet to bring Israel up from Egypt, by a prophet he cared for him. But Ephraim has bitterly provoked him to anger; his Lord will leave upon him the guilt of his bloodshed and will repay him for his contempt.’
and chapter 13 v 14:
“I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?”
The BBC’s ‘veteran’ international correspondent, John Simpson, turns seventy next year. He is one of only two people on earth who were on hand to witness each of the following events of 1989-90: the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the quiet revolutions in Poland and Hungary, the breaching of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, the violent overthrow of Ceaucescu in Romania and the release of Nelson Mandela. Between them, and the transition of power in the Soviet Union which took place in the following year, resulting in its final disintegration, these events have changed the individual lives of a majority of the human race. After Gorbachev came to power in the Kremlin, The African National Congress was warned by the senior Soviet diplomat in Lusaka in 1988 that it could no longer Moscow’s unconditional support. The Soviet agenda had switched from the expensive policies of confrontation to the cheaper ones of reconciliation. If it took the ANC leadership some time to come to terms with this change, it took the Pretoria government much longer. For years it had justified its internal policies on the basis of super-power rivalry, and used the language of a free market capitalist country surrounded by Communist enemies. For internal consumption, it emphasised the threat posed by the alliance between the ANC and the South African Communist Party. ‘Communism’ had been an illegal creed in South Africa since 1950 under an Act which defined it as any doctrine which aims at the bringing about of any political, industrial, social or economic change by the promotion of disturbance or disorder or by unlawful acts or omissions. The genuine fears of White South Africans about the threat of Communism were fed by extensive reporting of discoveries of arms originating from Eastern bloc countries. It was only when F.W. de Klerk took over the Presidency in 1989 that change became possible. The revolutions in Poland and Hungary seemed to the liberal-minded Foreign Secretary, Pik Botha, to be clear evidence that the USSR was no longer a global power and that the ideological ties between the ANC and the SACP would be severely weakened now that Soviet-style Communism had failed. He persuaded de Klerk that it was now safe to proceed with fundamental reform of South Africa’s state ideology of apartheid, or separate development. At the beginning of 1990, De Klerk legalised both the ANC and the SACP, and offered negotiations to do away with the last elements of the ideology. Thus, the changes brought about by the Hungarian and Polish revolutions and by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union had led directly to a revolution in South Africa which was to prove just as profound, if not more so.
I have been trying to recall when I first learnt of the evil of apartheid, and I think it must have been at about the same time as I joined Peter Hain’s Young Liberals in 1974/5, during my final year in secondary school. We didn’t study the history of South Africa, or indeed that of the Twentieth Century World in school. I also did ‘A’ level General Studies, and I remember buying a briefing paper from the Council for Education in World Citizenship, whose New Year conference I attended. I also joined CND in 1975, and the Christian Pacifist organisation, The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), with whom I’ve recently reconnected via the fortieth Greenbelt Festival held at Cheltenham Race Course last summer (I attended the first of these in 1974). I still have a transcript of a lecture given for them at Hinde Street Methodist Church in London in February of that year. It was given by the West Indian Methodist Minister, Philip Potter, then serving as the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. He had been associated with the ecumenical movement for twenty-five years, working with the Student Christian Movement and the Methodist Missionary Society. At that time, the doctrine of the separate development of races was widely held among Protestant Christians in Britain, especially in the Powellite Black Country where I grew up, so for me the position of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa was nothing remarkable. After all, wasn’t that what the Old Testament was all about? Many people in the West Birmingham Baptist churches believed that God intended the races to live separate lives in different countries and continents. However, there was only one flaw in this pseudo-theological argument. In reality, colonialism and slavery had mixed everyone up, so a policy of repatriation seemed a non-starter, even if it were thought desirable and could be achieved voluntarily, with agreement about where people would be repatriated to. However, support for the policy was based on irrational prejudice, of course, since many working-class and middle-class whites felt threatened by the influx of large numbers of Caribbean people moving into the area, especially in Smethwick, where my father was a pastor, and where, to its infamy, openly racist councillors were elected. There was a good deal of unofficial segregation, even in the churches, with only a handful of black Christians attending our church, but dominating others. Even in the 1980’s, although black and white Baptists shared the same building, they held their services at different times, partly because the worship took differing forms. However, through gospel choirs, rock bands, sporting competitions and festivals of arts, integration slowly took hold and, though racist remarks were still regularly heard in both formal and informal gatherings, by the mid-eighties there were no longer signs in shop windows saying ‘no blacks’ or ‘blacks need not apply’. Younger people went to school with Greek Orthodox Cypriots, liberal and orthodox Jews, Polish Catholics, Punjabi Sikhs and Pakistani Muslims, as well as Caribbean Christians. We therefore couldn’t really understand what the fuss and fears were all about. For me, against this backdrop, Philip Potter defined Apartheid South Africa very clearly and theologically, but in the context of the institutionalized colonial and racial oppression which also continued to exist at that time in Mozambique, Angola, Rhodesia, and Namibia:
The whole legal, economic political and even religious structure is directed to one aim – the separation of whites from blacks, in a manner which deprives the blacks of any meaningful existence. And yet South Africa, to name one of these countries, is rich in gold, diamonds, the purest and most coveted uranium in the world, and in industries. I do not need to inform you that the system is maintained by foreign investment (58% of which comes from the United Kingdom), by the sale of arms from European countries under the guise of the defense of the Indian Ocean, and by white immigration. There is no shortage of evidence pointing, without a shadow of a doubt, to the ways in which we are all involved in maintaining the institutionalised violence of the system. In fact, this country carries a very heavy responsibility for creating the situation in South Africa as well as Rhodesia. We Christians have no difficulty in speaking out against racism, in making protests and in encouraging people, especially privileged whites, to work for change and for overcoming the separation, apartheid, which has become intolerable. But have we fully recognised our responsibility for what has happened and is happening, and imaginatively and wholeheartedly entered the struggle, alongside those who are oppressed, for their liberation and for the reunion of the separated? Here again, a fearful judgement awaits us all as the holocaust looms steadily larger.
The holocaust which many expected, both inside South Africa and in the international community, did not happen, at least not on the scale anticipated by Oliver Tambo and other ANC leaders, exiled in Zambia. Nevertheless, there were trickles of blood, if not rivers, and these flowed regularly over the next fifteen years until Nelson Mandela’s release. As student leaders, we were horrified by the events which hit Soweto in 1976, not least because in Wales we were fighting our own non-violent campaign over the medium of education in our schools and colleges. We were horrified and further radicalized by the thought that students could be shot simply for demanding the right to be educated in the language of their choice rather than being forced to learn the language of their oppressors. This stirred up bitter collective memories of the legendary ‘Welsh Not’. Ours was a civil rights campaign, but we understood the concept of linguistic apartheid only too well and the need to have the Welsh language recognised and promoted throughout the country, not just confined to certain ‘homelands’.
We based our struggle on the non-violence practised by the Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the USA. It’s perhaps worth remembering that these civil rights for blacks in the US, including voting rights and an end to segregation in schooling and other walks of life, were only achieved after a decade-long struggle, from 1954 to 1964. When Mandela went to prison in 1963, King had not yet marched on Washington and proclaimed his ‘dream’ and only 6% of blacks in the Southern states were registered to vote. By the late sixties, blacks in the North could go to the same schools as whites, but many of them did not finish their education. Those who did could not find a job. They were segregated from whites by poverty, living in housing which was old and dirty, often with only one parent. King took his crusade against poverty to the great Northern city of Chicago, but was met by the violence of the police and from the poor whites he was trying to recruit through the slogan, Black and White Unite and Fight! Some black leaders did not agree with this, suggesting that he should only speak for black people, but he went on with his plan to lead a Poor People’s March on Washington. Segregation may have been ended, but integration of whites and blacks in a common cause was a long way from being achieved. When King made his speech in Memphis on 3rd April 1968, the Promised Land he was referring to was not simply a land for blacks, but for all the poor people of America, all the workers of the city who had gone on strike because they were badly paid. Most of these street-cleaners were black, but not all of them. On the evening following his speech, King was shot outside his hotel. Jesse Jackson, one of his young supporters, was the first to reach him and held him in his arms. He died in hospital an hour later, aged 39, eleven years younger than Nelson Mandela. Twenty-two years later, Jackson was, fittingly, one of the first to greet Mandela in Cape Town on his release from prison.
The former British Secretary of State for Wales and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Peter Hain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I was privileged to have been active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement for fifteen years, from 1974 to 1989, and to meet Donald Woods and Peter Hain, as well hearing to hear Bishop Trevor Huddleston and Bishop Desmond Tutu speak in 1989. I also toured schools teaching about the history of South Africa, in conjunction with a Theatre-in-Education Project by the Big Brum Theatre Company in the late 1980s. Nelson Mandela was released three days before I flew to Hungary, to begin a new chapter in my peace and reconciliation work here, which is still unfinished. When I wasn’t packing, I was watching and recording the dramatic scenes from the TV, thinking that I might need them to teach with one day. This prophetic thought came true yesterday, with teenage students here who mostly had no idea who he was. In 1990, his release was, for me, another exciting chapter in the seismic events which had suddenly, finally swept Soviet-style Communism out of Central-Eastern Europe, no doubt enabling the scene of change to shift to Apartheid South Africa itself, as hardline in its anti-communist stance since 1947/8 as many of the Stalinist states had been in defending the line from Moscow.
Undoubtedly, it should be now freely admitted, many of Mandela’s former colleagues in the African National Congress, though never he himself (according to his statement in court), had also followed the line from Moscow until, after the events in Poland of the mid-eighties, not to mention elsewhere in Africa, it had become impossible to do so any longer. It is a mark of the power of Marxist ideology in southern Africa that many in the ruling Afrikaner National Party clung onto a creed of racial hatred and segregation long after it had been abandoned in the US and elsewhere, because they feared South Africa going falling prey to that ideology as Zimbabwe had done. But for Mandela, and controversially at that, it might well have done so. Certainly, in the seventies and eighties there were many ANC supporters in the UK, as well as in South Africa itself, who looked forward to a violent revolution leading to black majority rule and a Marxist state in which land and industry controlled by whites would be taken over and redistributed. The very fact that the ANC was engaged, however legitimately, in an armed struggle, meant that such views remained dominant until Mandela’s release in 1990, a major factor in his refusal to abandon the armed struggle immediately. To do so would have led to a dramatic split in the ANC, and the destruction of any prospect of a negotiated settlement with the régime. In the three decades of Mandela’s imprisonment, the ANC, banned in South Africa, also had to meet clandestinely in Britain, in trade union offices, under constant surveillance from BOSS, the South African Secret Service and Scotland Yard’s Special Branch. In the euphoria of Mandela’s release it was easy to forget, and in the current atmosphere of adulation even more so, that he was almost certainly arrested and put on trial on information supplied by the CIA, and that Mrs Thatcher regarded him and the ANC as terrorists akin to those she banned and gagged in Northern Ireland for twenty years. History may remind us all of these uncomfortable facts in due course.
It may also remind us of the fact that many others in the political and cultural establishments actually fought against the Anti-Apartheid Movement, to their shame. These included politicians of all parties in south Wales and the Welsh Rugby Union, who broke the sanctions called for by both the ANC, the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee and the Commonwealth Secretariat. I can well remember standing on picket lines watching in horror as comrade socialists I had known for years crossed picket lines I was on to attend official receptions for the unofficial South African Barbarians Team, touring south Wales in 1979/80. Their excuse, presumably to this day, was that sport should not be made to pay for political systems, and that, in any case, there were a couple of black players in the touring team. Some of those who crossed the line were fellow historians, and to me their actions were worse than the England Football team who saluted Nazism in Germany in 1938. Hitler had not been there at the time, and they were acting under orders from a British government bent on appeasement. Kristallnacht had not yet happened. Just forty years later, Mrs Thatcher’s government was also bent on appeasing a government which had already committed atrocities against its own people, the defenceless school students of Soweto in 1976. However, the decision to become pawns in this new policy of appeasement was made by the Welsh Rugby Union and those for whom Rugby was more important than opposing Racism. Nevertheless, as the Press Secretary of the South Wales Campaign Against Racism in Sport, a broad organisation which included both communists and conservatives, ANC exiles and Welsh students and sportsmen, I condemned the spilling of carpet tacks on the Newport pitch where the tourists were due to play their first game. In the face of opposition from the WRU, we couldn’t afford to alienate both the Wales TUC and its Rugby-loving officials and members, and we had no idea who had been responsible for this action. When I picked up Peter Hain from Cardiff Central Station for what I think was his first visit to south Wales (I had previously known him as leader of the Young Liberals in England), he was quickly aware that any tampering with the Fields of Praise would go down even less well in the valleys than digging up the hallowed Cricket pitches of Yorkshire, even if we felt that this were justified in stopping such tours. To paraphrase Bill Shankly, Rugby wasn’t a matter of life and death in Wales at that time: It was far more important! Peter understood that. No doubt this sensitivity to local ‘territory’ later helped him to impress the Wales TUC and become Labour MP for Neath and Secretary of State for Wales. Looking back on these events with such wry smiles, I feel proud that my actions in support of the Anti-Apartheid Movement while a student President earned NUS Wales (UCMC) the unofficial title ‘NUS South Africa’ among the Young Tories of Aberystwyth and Bangor, as well as among some more parochially-minded Welsh Nationalists. Of course, like the Welsh Labour Establishment and the London Tory Hierarchy of that time, they are all now busily re-writing their roles in freeing Mandela and ending Apartheid. All but a handful of Tory MPs and ministers were happy for Mandela to rot in gaol for twenty-seven years; now they’re all trying to jump on the freedom train as it leaves the station, push their way to the engine and sit in the driving seat, pretending have always been in control and to know exactly where it was heading. Real History, written in thirty years time, will not absolve them I’m afraid.
Reel’ History was made out of another event of that year of 1979/80, when Donald Woods came to Swansea, at the invitation of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Woods was the white editor of an important’ liberal newspaper who had been banned by the government in Pretoria. At that stage, he was a journalist, little-known in Britain, who had managed to get out of South African house arrest to publish a book, a year earlier, on the life, and death in custody of the black political leader, Steve Biko. Of course, everyone now knows their story through the film, Cry Freedom, starring Kevin Kline and Denzil Washington. The second time I met him, in Birmingham, ten years later, the film had been widely screened, and he quipped that his wife had asked if she could swap the real Donald Woods for the Hollywood actor! Apart from the difference in appearances, Woods said that the film gave a truthful account of what really happened. It was based on his biography of Biko (1978) and Asking for Trouble: The Autobiography of a Banned Journalist (1980), which he was working on when he visited Swansea. After living in London for many years, Woods was able to return to South Africa in the nineties, training black journalists as part of a project called the Steve Biko Memorial Bursary. In the late seventies and early eighties, it was Biko who, partly through Woods’ book, was the best-known figure in the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain, and the film Cry Freedom helped to raise the demands for the release of Mandela and the other ANC prisoners. In 1988 there were Free Nelson Mandela concerts and meetings at which Donald Woods, Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu spoke.
In 1997, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa questioned five security policemen who were involved in Biko’s death. They admitted hitting him and chaining him to the security bars of his cell for twenty-four hours. Peter Jones, who was arrested with Biko in 1977 and who survived eighteen months in prison, spoke on behalf of Biko’s family. On the 12th September 1997, there was a national commemoration of Biko’s death on its twentieth anniversary. Thousands attended the unveiling of a statue at the East London City Hall by President Nelson Mandela. The main bridge over the Buffalo river nearby was renamed the Steve Biko bridge, so Biko will probably remain the best-remembered victim of the apartheid régime. The Soweto Uprising and Biko’s murder marked a clear turning point for apartheid South Africa. Before 1976/77, the leaders of Afrikanerdom had never doubted that the country could continue along the same lines as the founders of the Republic had laid down, given a degree of flexibility. After this period, only the most extreme conservatives would stand by the system of apartheid. Everyone else would look for ways of ditching it. The fall of Communism in central-Eastern Europe in 1989 provided that opportunity.
Nevertheless, like Biko, Nelson Mandela would never allow his name to be separated from the movement for black liberation, which he believed could only be achieved through the armed struggle of the ANC. That was why he had been imprisoned in 1963, and even on his release he was unequivocal about this, to the consternation of many white politicians, who put pressure on President De Klerk for his re-internment. He had given his comrades a promise in a message to the United Democratic Front five years previously:
Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts… I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.
Nelson Mandela had spent eighteen of his twenty-seven years as a prisoner on Robben Island, a few miles from the shoreline of Cape Town, in Table Bay. His prison number was 0221141011, and he was held in Cell 7 in Section B of the high security block, where the leaders of the various black political organisations were held. The cell was nine feet square. The warders were often harsh and brutal, though they never used physical violence against Mandela himself. Conditions were hard, but Mandela had been a boxer in his youth, and knew how to keep fit. He would rise at 4 a.m. and meditate deeply. Then he would do a series of exercises and, when the doors were opened at 7 a.m, he would sprint around the courtyard, skip and shadow-box for an hour. For many prisoners who did time on the island it was an essential part of their political education and development, a kind of university. Mandela was known to his fellow prisoners by his tribal name, Madhiba, and was the central figure in Section B. As a lawyer, he would be visited by many prisoners with various personal and familial problems, but the most important work he did was political. He worked to defuse the conflicts which frequently exploded into violence between the leaders of the various black nationalist groupings housed in his section. One of the leaders of the Pan Africanist Congress, Japhta Masemola, was a strong antagonist of the ANC, but he established a strong friendship with Mandela, of whom he said:
Mandela is a gentleman in the true sense of the word. It doesn’t matter if you differ, he is always polite. He never gets angry. All he will do is try to have the discussion as amicable as possible.
Mandela studied hard, reading newspapers carefully, including those in Afrikaans, a language he learnt well in order to understand his captors, then his enemies, by asking them about their families and conversing with them on everyday subjects. He had access to the prison library and read every book he could find on political economy. At the same time he studied for a law degree. He also cultivated a garden around the edges of the prison courtyard, growing melons, tomatoes and cucumbers, making fertiliser from bones given to him by the prison kitchen.
By the time he was sent to Pollsmoor prison on the mainland in 1982 he had won the respect of the various factions of African Nationalism which he might not have reached if he had merely been in exile, like his comrade Oliver Tambo, isolated from other opinions other than those in the mainstream ANC. For the world outside South African politics he had become a symbol of the refusal of Pretoria’s refusal to treat with the majority community. Even Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, although viewing the ANC as essentially a terrorist organisation, committed to armed struggle, had to admit that Pretoria could not be a normal partner in the political process until Mandela was freed. His imprisonment became a powerful symbol for the imprisonment of non-whites generally in South Africa. While he remained locked away, it would be impossible to achieve the normalisation of any form of relations with what clearly remained an abnormal society. Nevertheless, for many years he himself did not expect to be released, and he had long come to terms with the apparent reality that he would die in gaol.
BBC correspondent, John Simpson, was in South Africa at the time of Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison, near Paarl, and reported on how his tall figure and impassive face rode serenely on the surface of all the excitement and noise and turbulence around him. By now he was thin and fragile, mostly white-haired, looking nothing like the photos of twenty-five years earlier which the world’s press had continued to use in the absence of more recent ones. Despite this, his face was relatively unlined, as if the years in prison had sheltered him from the worries of the world outside. Nevertheless, it was hard not to think that he had been released ten years too late to become an effective, energetic leader. Like Dubcek in Czechoslovakia, at seventy-one he could only hope to play a transitional, symbolic role, working to heal the anger and violence created by the lingering apartheid years.
Meanwhile, these years of acting as a political figure in her own right had damaged Winnie Mandela’s reputation. When she had returned from her period of banning to Soweto in the mid-eighties, she had gathered around her a group of young thugs, who played together as ‘Mandela United’ and acted as her personal bodyguard. They became involved in the vicious factionalism of the time, kidnapping a group of activists, including a fourteen-year-old boy, Stompie, holding them prisoner and torturing them at her Soweto home. Stompie was murdered after the police were informed of the beatings in which it was claimed she herself had participated. The team coach was tried for Stompie’s murder, and eight members of the team were charged with kidnapping and assault. In 1986 she had alienated many of her supporters by giving public approval to the ‘necklace’ killing of those suspected of collaborating with the police. Tyres filled with petrol were hung around the victims’ necks and set alight. She also tried to sell a ‘franchise’ on the Mandela name to an American publicist, a move which was blocked by the ANC and Nelson Mandela himself. She seemed to have become a liability to their cause and, now her husband was now back home, she had lost her role as his mouthpiece to the world. She told a journalist soon after his release, that she would have to get used to cooking again!
John Simpson wrote that what he saw in the Soccer City stadium in Soweto in the hot February sun of 1990 was the third of three changes of fortune that he had never expected to be able to see: people dancing on the Berlin Wall, Alexander Dubcek speaking again in Wenceslas Square, and now Nelson Mandela singing Nkosi sikilelel’ iAfrika as a free man. In his speech, Mandela called for the children to go back to school, for an end to crime and an end to violence in Natal and Cape Town:
The hijacking and setting alight of vehicles are criminal acts that have no part in our struggle. Our victories must be celebrated in peace and joy… The fears of whites about their place in a South Africa they do not control must be addressed. As I said in 1964 I say again now: We are opposed to black domination. We must show our goodwill, show that a South Africa without apartheid will be a better home for all… We appeal to all those who out of ignorance joined in the call for apartheid. No one who abandons apartheid will be excluded from our movement… Let not a single hair be hurt, not a single window be broken when you leave this place…
Nevertheless, these appeals for moderation went largely unnoticed by the white press, even that of liberal persuasion. It had been too shocked by the call he made in Cape Town for the ‘armed struggle’ and international sanctions to continue. In London, Mrs Thatcher had cancelled a press conference in a fit of pique at this. It had been assumed that Mandela had already conceded these policies in exchange for his release. The liberal whites felt a sense of betrayal and a sudden diminution in their earlier somewhat euphoric sense that here was the man who could lead them into a new, non-racial country. On the right, there were exaggerated fears of impending violence and a renewed belief that, in the ANC, they were still dealing with a Revolutionary Marxist organisation intent on seizing power and establishing a one-party dictatorship. Four days later, at a huge Conservative Party rally, the swastika flags and SS symbols of the AWB appeared in the crowd, though those carrying them were politely asked to leave by the organisers. However, they did not do so, but politely listened to the leader of the Conservatives, Dr Andries Treurnicht, before beginning the chant ‘kill de Klerk!’ and ‘kill Mandela!’
The Conservative Party had become the authentic voice of white fears of a black take-over of power. Although a minority party in Parliament, they were starting to win the hearts and minds of the majority of the Afrikaner population in the wake of Mandela’s release. Out of five million white voters, three million were Afrikaners: the traditionally more liberal English-speakers were about two million. The National Party had maintained its power since 1948 because of this imbalance, but now it was moving towards racial equality itself, it would have to depend on the votes of liberal Afrikaners and English-speaking whites in order to survive. President de Klerk was also in danger of losing the support of the police forces, 80% of whom were reported to be switching their allegiance to the Conservatives. Seven blacks had died in custody in the month leading up to and following Mandela’s release, revealing that the SAP had lost none of its instinct for brutality since the death of Steve Biko. They continued to use beatings, water torture and electric shock ‘treatment’ against dissident blacks.
Even so, as John Simpson reported, blacks were slowly winning back cities like Johannesburg. He concluded his visit by returning to Rosebank, the white shopping area of twelve years earlier. Advertisements aimed at the new black middle classes, particularly women, were everywhere. When the whites started heading home at five o’ clock, black people started converging on the centre. They were now looking at the Yves Saint Laurent clothes and sitting down at the tables outside the Oxford Milk Bar. By five-thirty, there wasn’t a white face to be seen. Black Africa, at last, had come to Rosebank shopping centre.
Philip Potter’s conclusion to his 1974 lecture points out that we cannot become instruments of reconciliation without first experiencing the full force of separation, just as Jesus experienced it in crucifixion, and as Mandela did among the separated of Robben Island. It is only in the weakness of self-giving that the power of love can release the healing, reconciling love of God. Forgiving is the most searching test of the power of love. Power as the capacity to release something new, unexpected, creative, as part of our inescapable relations with others, and love as self-giving for others, are manifested in forgiving. In old English, the prefix ‘for’ implied intensive force, pressure applied in excess, all over, extremely, overwhelmingly. To forgive therefore means to give overpoweringly, through and through. To fallen human nature, vengeance is the natural course of action to take in matching injury to injury, of violence by violence, of oppression by oppression, of hatred by hatred. However, it is not an action, it is a reaction. It is not creative, life-affirming or life-promoting, but destructive, life-denying and life-discouraging. Forgiveness is therefore the clearest evidence of the power of love. It gives us the possibility of starting afresh and beginning something new. The apostle Paul puts it like this:
When anyone is united in Christ, there is a new world, a new act of creation; the old order is gone, the old life is over; and a new order, a new life has already begun. (2 Cor. 5:17).
Paul’s reference to the oikoumene, the Greek word meaning ‘the whole inhabited earth’, has the sense not just of human beings of every ethnic group, nation, tribe, religion and culture, but also of ‘the whole created order’ of plants and animals. So we are called to overcome separation and segregation, or the apartheid of the old world with the overwhelming power of love which can reconcile all things in a new natural order. In this new order there are no longer any dividing walls, and only the cowardly, the faithless, the murderers, the abusers and the liars will be excluded from the new polis, or city (Rev. 21-22). Therefore, those who do nothing in the ongoing struggle against apartheid in the world, and those who willingly and ruthlessly distort, exploit, torture and destroy human beings will be excluded from the new political order.
So, we must continue to make a choice between the love of power which produces, reproduces and maintains separation, leading ultimately to death; or the power of love, which endeavours and endures for the breaking down of walls, whether in Berlin or Belfast, Judea or Johannesburg. The power of love is hope in action, for the reunion of the oikoumene, for the shared life of the open city. Love and politics are two words which do not fit easily together in this world, except perhaps in the lives of exceptional leaders like Nelson Mandela. They will in the next. Is it time we raised them on our banners, the standards of an endless movement against all forms of apartheid and for global reconciliation? Perhaps because we use an Afrikaans word, it is too easy for us to associate it with the past of one country, or one corner of one continent on earth, rather than with the almost permanent segregation which some still find themselves, like the Roma peoples of a another country and another corner of another continent. Owning this once-hated word might be a means by which we own up as people and peoples to the ways we separate and segregate ourselves from our fellow humans and, in sinful disobedience, from God’s oikoumene.
Sources and Resources (for teachers):
John Briley (1989, 2008), Cry Freedom. Oxford: OUP, Oxford Bookworms (simplified edition).
Rowena Akinyemi (2008), Nelson Mandela. Oxford: OUP, Oxford Bookworms (Factfiles).
Philip Potter (1974), The Love of Power or The Power of Love. New Malden: Fellowship of Reconciliation.
John Simpson (1990), Dispatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.
Margaret Holmes & Nigel West (1986), A History of South Africa. Leeds: Development Education Centre (extract below).