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April 2018: Father of the Nation


Father of the Nation

It is a big claim to call someone ‘The Father of the Nation.’ Can anyone bestride history in a way that worthily earns such a title? Yet that is the title given to Nelson Mandela by his fellow countrymen in South Africa, and I think it is one that is well justified. I heard it mentioned on many occasions when I was in South Africa just a few weeks ago - in this, the centenary of Mandela’s birth.

The highlight of my visit to that wonderful country in some senses was the safaris I did in the Kruger National Park. But marvellous as they were, they were outstripped by three separate days earlier in my stay - a visit to two townships, one the famous ‘Soweto’, and a day on Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned and where, along with many other political prisoners he suffered hugely at the hands of the Apartheid security forces.

I stood at the door of the minute cell where he was incarcerated for so long, stood in the prison yard where he had to crush stones for hours at a time, and looked over the quarry where he was forced for days on end to hew rocks from the cliff side. I was moved to silence and deep sadness at the brutality of a regime that treated people as inferior beings because of the colour of their skin. I remember as a student marching against the apartheid government in South Africa. But what then was a reality at arms length now stared me in the face.

Altogether Mandela served 27 years in prison  - the last few in another jail on the mainland from where he was released in 1990. That release spot is now remembered by a twice-life-sized statue with his arm upraised proclaiming freedom - like many I had my photo taken beside him.

In 1994 when Mandela was elected President by a vote of the whole people - previously blacks had not had a vote - he faced the daunting task of creating a new nation, a rainbow nation, as he called it. He frequently showed that he bore no hatred or ill will against those who were formerly his captors and oppressors. He passionately called for forgiveness and reconciliation - often a message derided by both black and white. Thankfully this message of reconciliation won the day  - most graphically demonstrated in his friendship with the captain of national rugby team, the Springboks, a team at the very heart of white Afrikaner nationalism. Some of you will have seen the marvellous movie, ‘Invictus’ that shows how Mandela inspired the country to unite as South Africa  managed, against all the odds, to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

I recommend the movie (readily available on DVD) as one of the most powerful expositions of what we as Christians believe about forgiveness and reconciliation. As so often, the ones who succeeded Mandela as President fell away from his ideals, and corruption has been widespread. But when I was there I witnessed the peaceful ousting of the very corrupt president to be succeeded by Cyril Ramaphosa who immediately pledged himself to the ideals embodied in the ‘Father of the Nation.’ This has revived a cautious note of optimism among the people. May they reestablish themselves as a beacon of reconciliation - a rainbow nation.