Have you noticed how so many claim Nelson Mandela as theirs? The Methodist church that I serve through has done this more than most. The church’s statement in response to Madiba’s death recounts and shows off every single Methodist aspect of Madiba’s life. It is proud to be associated with this great person and even prouder to have possibly contributed to his greatness. But sadly the statement reads more like a sales pitch for the Methodist Church than a celebration of the Mandela-gift to the world.

The truth is Mandela belonged to all and to none at the same time. A prisoner for years but he was never held captive for a second. He was not a captive of the colour of his skin or clan or culture. He broke free from the bonds of language, nationality, religion and political affiliation. The roots of his humanity went deeper than these accidents of birth. He was more than all these social constructs. And he reminds us that we too are more than these. You are more. I am more. We are more.

I want to mention just two aspects of Mandela’s living that constantly challenge, convict and comfort me. To fight and to forgive. To fight oppression and to forgive oppressors. To do both and to do them over and over again.

Mandela the Fighter of Oppression
Madiba fought oppression. Madiba fought against the dehumanization of people.

The time comes in the life of a nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defense of our people – our future – our freedom.

Madiba’s fight for justice never died. Prison did not subdue his fighting spirit. He reserved it for his opponents, his followers, his elders and those beyond our shores. As it was with Jesus whenever he witnessed people being excluded and exploited.

As we hear him address FW de Klerk in 1992:
You are going to give in. Because if you don’t we are going to humiliate you. And I will see to it that that happens.

Or to the people of Khatlehong in the same year:
I am your leader. You want me to remain your leader? Yes? Well as long as I am your leader I will tell you always when you are wrong.

Or to Matanzima in 1995
I respect custom but I am not a tribalist. I fought as an African nationalist and I have no commitment to the custom of any tribe.

Or to George W Bush in 2003
It is a tragedy – what is happening. What Bush is doing. Bush is now undermining the UN. Why is the USA behaving so arrogantly? All that Mr Bush wants is Iraqi oil. A president who has no foresight – who cannot think – will plunge the world into a holocaust.

Mandela the Forgiver of Oppressors
Mandela forgave not only his enemies but he forgave our enemies. To shake the hand of Mandela you knew that that same hand had previously held the hand of our enemy.

It was one of the difficult things to accept about Mandela as it was with Jesus. That he refused to allow anyone to determine who he should associate with and who he should ignore. There are photos of Mandela hugging children – the elderly – the poor – the rich – Castro and Clinton and Gaddafi and FW – the Queen and Mugabe – Granny Verwoerd and communists and springboks and super-models. While everyone wanted to be his favourite, he seemed to have no favourites – except maybe the children.

Mandela to be followed not worshiped
I am convinced that while Madiba was still alive he would not want anyone to bow down before him. Rather he would say: “If you really want to make me happy then stop kissing my feet and rather make sure the children of this land have shoes on their feet. Tend to the poor and the homeless. Work for the day that all have houses to live in and lands to cultivate and schools and hospitals to attend.”

I am equally convinced that Jesus would say the same. “You have made me into an idol. You have allowed your worship of me to replace following me. You think you are pleasing me by singing my praises but all it shows is that you have failed to understand me. To love me is to love those who I loved – all people everywhere. I have no favourites except I do have a special place in my heart for the poor and vulnerable of society. To care for me is to care about that which I cared about – namely justice and fairness for all. If you really want to worship me – then follow my example like Mandela did (whether he did consciously or unconsciously matters less) and fight oppression and forgive oppressors.”

Alan Storey
Mandela Memories – Service at Central Methodist Mission on 6 December 2013

The Nelson Mandela I knew and loved

The Nelson Mandela I knew … and loved
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Peter Storey

I met Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela exactly fifty years ago in his jail cell on Robben Island. I was a newly ordained part-time Chaplain to the prison there. He, together with his fellow Rivonia Trialists, had been flown secretly to the Island after being sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour for the rest of their natural lives. The guards were very edgy about their new prisoners, determined to show these ‘terrorists’ how tough they were. Sunday, when I visited, was their one day off, but it was spent in total lock-down. I was not allowed to gather them for a normal service of worship, but had to walk up and down the hallway between the cells, trying to make eye contact with each occupant as I passed. Apart from Ahmed Kathrada, a Muslim, the rest had all experienced mission-school education and were familiar with Christian worship. Preaching was difficult but I tried to leave each one with a word of encouragement. Singing, on the other hand, was not bound by iron bars and the great hymns of the church, which were well-known to them, echoed powerfully through the hallways, their melodies often taken up by prisoners in other blocks. My memories of Mandela were of a strong, vital character in the prime of his manhood, all strength and contained energy. He had a ready smile and clearly appreciated the dilemma of a young minister trying, under the cold eyes of the guards, to bring a moment of humanity into this desolate place. Only once, on a very cold day, was I able to persuade a guard to let the group out into the prison yard where we gathered in a sunny spot. That day I changed my text to, ‘If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed,’ letting them choose how to spell Son/sun. They enjoyed the joke. The guards did not.

Given these impossible limitations, I have sometimes felt embarrassed being introduced as ‘Mandela’s prison Chaplain.’ Yet, looking back I realize that being confined to sharing nothing other than the healing, strengthening words of Scripture and the songs of the faith, required one to put one’s trust entirely in the power of the Gospel – nothing else. More than one of the Rivonia group, including Madiba, have told me since how that ministry and those who followed me (my security clearance was abruptly withdrawn after a few months) meant to them. Ahmed Kathrada, now the only Rivonia trialist still living – and the Muslim in the group – has also shared how, in those early horror days on Robben Island, that brief moment of humanity helped them all.

It was 20 years later when I next heard from Madiba. Still in prison, he used one of his precious letter-writing privileges (initially one per month and later relaxed to a half dozen) to congratulate me on being elected to lead the Methodist Church in Southern Africa, and to express his appreciation for the care the church had shown to him through its Chaplains and to Winnie his spouse, in her banishment and suffering at the hands of the ‘system.’ It was in that letter that he referred to his first encounter with the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg in the 1940s, when he was struck by the message outside: ‘The greatest glory in living is not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall.’ That message, he wrote with typical understatement, ‘tended to steel a person against the host of traumas he was to experience in later years.’

In the years following his release our paths crossed often. From a personal point of view I guess the most special occasions were when I shared a platform with him in 1993 speaking at the Centenary of Gandhi’s arrival in South Africa and in 1995 on the first anniversary of Freedom Day, presenting him with a sculpture forged out of melted-down guns collected by Gunfree South Africa, which I headed at the time. On both occasions we had some laughs about this proud former commander of the ANC underground army/become peacemaker and these two determinedly non-violent moments.

The Mandela I knew became beloved by me, not so much for the grand gestures, although he was a master at political theatre, but for the lesser known acts that revealed a truly human genius for Ubuntu – the awareness that his life was inextricably bound up with the lives of all his fellow human beings, especially his enemies. He was the great includer; nothing was too much trouble if he could cajole or charm another opponent into friendship.

This man who would not bend an inch in his determination to win freedom for his people, nor to be humiliated by the cruelty of his prison guards, yet who said to his comrades as soon as they arrived on the island, ‘Chaps, these Afrikaners may be brutal, but they are human beings. We need to understand them and touch the human being inside them, and win them.’ And did…

This man who, on behalf of the one Muslim among them, badgered the prison authorities literally for years – six, I believe – until they at last yielded and granted permission for Ahmed Kathrada to walk the 50 yards outside the prison entrance to pray in the Kramat (a holy place commemorating a Muslim Imam exiled to the Island by the Dutch in the 1740s). The whole Rivonia group accompanied him…

This man who, when former spouse Winnie shamed the Mandela name by her involvement in the kidnapping of some young men in Soweto and the killing of one of them, struggled to understand the role of his church in the drama and criticized our actions from his prison cell. And who, when we managed to send him a true record of what had happened, sent a personal apology via his lawyer, requesting ‘forgiveness for having misjudged you…’

This man, who in his first Parliamentary speech as President, announced that nursing mothers and children under six would receive free health care, ‘whatever had to be done to pay for it…’

This man, who, when he invited the spouses and widows of former white Presidents/Prime Ministers to tea, received news that Mrs Betsy Verwoerd, widow of the most virulent racist of them all, had ‘diplomatic flu’, decided to surprise her in her whites-only redoubt instead, arriving in his helicopter and knocking on her door, and appearing later with her in a smiling photograph…

This man who, when told by his staff that they were changing the name of the Parliamentary office building named after Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, suggested they hold off until Verword’s widow had passed on. ‘There is no need to hurt her unnecessarily. It can wait…’

This man who, when told that one of his personal armed bodyguards had links with a far right-wing racist group and had been removed, said, ‘I don’t think we should do that. He is young and immature and it will destroy him. Let’s give him another chance …’

This man, who when we presented him with our list of nominated Truth Commissioners for him to make the final cut, asked first, ‘Have we sufficient women on the list? We must have gender equity…’ And when we told him that we had been able to find only one candidate of integrity from strife-torn KwaZulu-Natal, he disregarded the process and just went ahead and appointed a Methodist bishop from the region, knowing that unless KZN was better represented, the Truth Commission would not be accepted there…

This man, who when I led a small delegation to meet with him about the crisis of guns and killing going on in 1994, came shuffling into the grand conference room next to his Presidential office in Pretoria wearing an old pair of slippers. He sat down and said, ‘I’m tired Peter. It’s been a hard day, you chair the meeting please,’ and closed his eyes. He wasn’t asleep, however: at some point he looked up from the list of participating religious groups and asked, ‘Where are the Dutch Reformed Churches?’ I said that they had been very difficult to persuade about the gun hand-in campaign. ‘Well, he said, ‘if I’m to be patron of this, you need to get them in…’

This man who asked me to write a speech he was to give to a church conference, and who, wherever I referenced the ‘role of the churches’ in the liberation struggle, or in leading protests or caring for victims, struck out the world ‘churches’ and inserted the words ‘ faith communities,’ in order to be more inclusive of other faiths in the land he now governed…

This man who never tried to hide his feet of clay, lived comfortably in his skin, and never lost an opportunity to deprecate his own accomplishments, lightly deflecting praise to others…

What a very human being!

How blest are those of a gentle spirit …

How blest are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail …

How blest are those who show mercy …

How blest are those whose hearts are pure …

How blest are the peacemakers …

How blest are those who have suffered persecution for the cause of right …

We are so grateful that God made Nelson Mandela, purified him in suffering and gave him to our divided land to help us become different – the kind of people we were meant to be.

We are so grateful that he now rests.

He always said the future was in our hands. Now it is.

Peter Storey
Cape Town
7 December, 2013