Beyond the headlines, celebrity tweets and instagrammed photos, there is a deeper and richer story to be told in response to the death of South Africa’s first black president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.
It is a story that might mean something different to Americans than to South Africans, or to wealthy South Africans than to poor South Africans (whether that be among similar or different races).
Mandela’s story was first understood by PLNU sociology professor Jamie Gates, through the perspective of his Nazarene missionary parents, while growing up in South Africa.
“The word amongst the evangelical missionaries at the time was that Mandela was a terrorist, a communist, an atheist and a dangerous man,” said Gates, who also directs PLNU’s Center for Justice and Reconciliation. “Of course, this is the perspective that was being fed to us through the news media, and through the dominant perspective in the Reagan and Thatcher administrations of the day. The truth was far more complex.”
Robert Gailey, a PLNU business professor who also lived in South Africa for a few years as a Nazarene missionary son, experienced something similar.
“I remember after he was released from prison and before he became president some other missionaries telling me he was dangerous and would ruin South Africa if he ever became president,” Gailey said via email.
Mandela, who passed away on Dec. 5 in Johannesburg, South Africa, led a political party called the African National Congress, which was considered a terrorist group by the Reagan Administration of the 80’s.
“Mandela was critical of superpower around the world and critical of the United States for bullying other people,” Gates said. “He was friendly to socialist governments around the world that have really strong social safety nets, he was friendly toward unions and people having a voice on the job – all of which flies in the face of dominant culture of the United States. He was also critical of capitalism.”
Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his mostly peaceful but partly violent resistance to apartheid. Apartheid was the system of rule in South Africa from 1948 to 1994, developed by a white ethnic group known as Afrikaners in power under the National Party to segregate non-whites.
He was released from prison in 1990 and worked with South Africa’s president at the time to abolish apartheid and establish multiracial elections in 1994. In those same elections, he was selected as the country’s first black president.
Many feared that Mandela would use his new power to seek revenge or justice now that apartheid had ended. But Mandela went on television and reassured the white population that any future black government would never act with retribution or malice toward the whites who had oppressed them for half of a century.
“This sense of ubuntu – a sort of interdependence and mutuality in our humanity – dominates in South African culture,” said Lindsay Lupo, a PLNU political science professor who helps lead the university’s summer study abroad trips to South Africa, via email. “I think it’s because of Mandela and other leaders of the resistance movement. I have seen this each time I’ve been to South Africa, as whites continue to speak with such high regard for Mandela – even though they used to call him a terrorist.”
Daniel Mutowa, a PLNU freshman born in Zimbabwe, but who lived in South Africa from 2008-2013, explained that there is still some racial tension in the country, but that his generation has learned the true meaning of unity. He said it took a while for the parents of a white friend of his to accept him into their home.
“He [Mandela] teaches to forgive those that have wronged you. He teaches what the Bible teaches,” Mutowa said. “I think they understand what Mandela did for the people. Unity was Nelson Mandela’s goal for the country and my friends there live by that rule. They do not discriminate.”
Fidele Sebahizi, a 31-year-old freshman and groundskeeper at PLNU from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said Mandela’s impact can be felt not only in South Africa, but for the entire continent of Africa.
“Mandela was very known in my country,” Sebahizi said. “He was a model of democracy, though we have none in the country. To me, I compare Mandela to George Washington. He is the father of African democracy, if there would be any.”
Though Mandela’s passing is recognized as the loss of a national symbol of hope, and a world leader the likes of which are few and far between in the new millennium, Gates said his legacy is bigger than the person of Nelson Mandela.
“I don’t consider Mandela a saint in the Christian sense. I consider him a mentor,” Gates said. “Here’s somebody who made some really grotesque mistakes and some decisions I cannot agree with along the way, but somehow, God used this particular person, in the middle of a very violent and complex history to bring about some justice and reconciliation…In a world that is so desperate for some kind of hope, you look at his life and you say, ‘there’s something there that I want to be.’
Gailey said the fact that Mandela was initially recognized by many as a terrorist, but then in recent days has been revered worldwide in such a positive light has opened his eyes to ways he might have been blinded in the past. This also causes him to re-evaluate where he finds information, who he listens to, and what biases and assumptions exist in different situations.
“The benefit of hindsight allows for that – and should make us all cautious about standing so firm in our beliefs that we do not listen carefully to those who are suffering or marginalized (rather than to leaders in power – on either side of a debate),” Gailey said via email.
Gates, who will host a screening of “Have You Heard From Johannesburg” Tuesday at 3 p.m. hopes to discuss Mandela’s legacy with PLNU students and explore what it really means in the span of history and for the future.
“The day we learned of his death one of my comments was, ‘Oh Lord, I pray we don’t turn him into a boulevard. Everywhere I go Martin Luther King Boulevards are in the poor neighborhood that haven’t been taken care of like King would have wanted them to be taken care of,” said Gates. “It’s time to mourn him but it’s also time to pick up where he left off and live out his legacy.”