Mandela: Reconciliation & Forgiveness

Rod Cullingworth is a white South African. After studying for ministry in the US he and his family returned to Cape Town, South Africa where they have planted several house churches. He shares here his impressions of the recently deceased Nelson Mandela. Thank-you Rod for sharing your experiences. [The name Madiba is Mandela’s African clan name.]

Living in South Africa has provided useful close-up experience of the Madiba phenomenon, providing both the observational aspect and the ‘feel’ of the situation, gained only by proximity.

I was raised in an anti-nonwhite environment, but had enough contrary influences to provide an alternate view. Even my military duty experience exposed me to both sides of the prevalent prejudice: my studies exposed me to the official position on the banned organizations (such as Madiba’s ANC), their history, their goals, etc., while I experienced firsthand, because of my specific deployment, the conditions so many black South Africans live in. And in later years my ministry has taken me across many boundaries—economic, ethnic, educational, etc. Thus, still today, I hear and see and experience multiple aspects of life in South Africa. In other words, I have many years to draw on when expressing my opinion on this matter . . . I have not been totally sheltered from the realities of life in South Africa, which is, ironically, possible.

Anybody who has spent even a small amount of time considering prejudice is aware that it dies hard; it is propagated, sadly, very effectively. Generations pass on prejudice even when trying to prevent it—our prejudices just sorta ooze out. This is one reason it is so vital to be transformed; our transformed selves will then ooze something else: whatever we’ve been transformed into.

Jesus taught on this. Some special people over the millennia have modeled it. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was one such person.

Since actions speak louder than words, Madiba’s demonstration of forgiveness and reconciliation has done much more than any person’s rhetoric to improve race relations. South Africa—the world, for that matter—has a long way to go to improve race relations. It will take the dedicated commitment of successive generations teaching their following generations—in words, but more importantly, through behaviour—to ‘play nice’ with people not like themselves. This is so much more possible in South Africa than in other countries, in my opinion, because of Madiba’s example.

Those years in prison could have been used to nurture his hatred and resentment and desire for revenge. Or, as actually occurred, Madiba could choose to apply the principles of God: mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation . . . This is one clear example of God not being a respecter of persons—when someone applies God’s principles, whether such a person is saved or not, the results will come. This is stated slightly differently elsewhere, in the ‘sowing-and-reaping’ concept. Even farmers who do not believe God is in control of His creation reap if they apply sound agricultural principles.

Nelson Mandela’s behavior applied, for instance, the godly principle of overcoming evil with good instead of paying back evil with evil (as per Rom. 12), in his demonstration of a generally conciliatory attitude.

More than in a single event, this principle seems well captured in Madiba’s spoken and applied perspective not to seek retribution. This was, in my opinion, one of the telling influences preventing wide-spread acts of revenge on the white population once President Mandela was released, and especially after the elections of 1994 and the formation of the new government. While such acts took place, they were strongly denounced. The denouncements found widespread acceptance, it seems, because of Madiba’s speeches and actions upholding reconciliation.

An example of this mindset–and the effect on the people–can be seen in how the movie “Invictus” portrayed Madiba putting together the security detail of the previous president and the men selected by the ANC to protect Madiba. This security group was a microcosm of the country: the new leader making the previous factions “play nice”. Apart from that aspect, Madiba was risking his life by bringing the previous enemy right to his side . . . he put his money where his mouth was by demonstrating forgiveness rather than firing that white security detail.

For President Mandela to have chosen to respond as he did has given people across the spectrum the example, the motivation, the courage, the permission, to behave in a way that improves race relations in spite of whatever the specifics of their background are. They don’t even have to be God-followers.

Now that Madiba has passed on, his legacy will be tested. If people continue to copy his example, many will benefit and his example will prove to have been powerfully influential. If his influence decreases with his passing, his example and legacy are not diminished. On the contrary: if in the absence of his remarkable example others fail to apply it, his response to his situation, which led to such a dramatic season of hope for race relations, will prove to be that much more remarkable, being so rare.

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