Greatness, Myth and Reality

By: Joseph Bragotii, mccj

A little over three months after Nelson Mandela’s death, followed by gazillions of words, from the highest praise to the most narrow-minded criticism, perhaps the time has come to put some order in it all and to ensure that he will not be forgotten. Mandela will be forever a sign of contradiction, joining the selected company of such human rights giants as Gandhi, M.L. King, little Malala and others. His mother was right when she named him “Rolihlala,” which translates as “troublemaker.”

Nelson Mandela, was one of the first black lawyers in South Africa and it didn’t take long for him to find trouble. He had this innate sense of justice and equality that did not sit well with the inhuman oppression of apartheid. By now, his life’s quest is well known to all. The Comboni Missionaries, who have been working in South Africa since 1924, could write volumes on the tragedy and utter injustice of apartheid and the struggle to serve the poor and the oppressed in various hometowns and so called “homelands.”

Mandela’s life and greatness are best described in this quote from an editorial that appeared in the National Catholic Reporter on December 13, 2013: “He represented and lived the kind of ideals we hold dear, but rarely reach. He was an intelligent revolutionary who saw great injustices and opposed them even with his life. He was spared execution, but served 27 years behind prison bars, and miraculously emerged not bitter or seeking revenge. Rather, he came out talking forgiveness and reconciliation. As a national and global leader, he never forgot his origins or left his ideals. When it came time to leave the national stage, he left with grace. He was, in the end, a humble person.”

Rarely was the command of Jesus to forgive our enemies better exemplified than in the extended hand of Nelson Rolihlala Mandela. After his release by President F. W. De Klerk, Mandela stated: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead me to my freedom, I knew that if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I would still be in prison.”

Mandela, a Methodist, always recognized the role of religion in his life and in the life of the nation. “The values I was taught in those institutions (Sunday school) have helped me all through life,” said he on more than one occasion. He also worked hand in hand with all major religions. Catholic Card. Napier, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and leaders of all major denominations stood by Mandela even in the most critical days. In the end even his worst enemy, Dr. Johan Heyns, leader of the Dutch Reformed Church, which had been directly responsible for the success of apartheid, abandoned his position and led his church on a path to repentance and cooperation.

Nelson Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize winner together with De Klerk in 1993, was not without critics, especially in the United States. In the days of the cold war, we tended to label as Communists and a national threat anyone who was not on our side. President Reagan vetoed a bill to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime but was fortunately overridden by Congress.

Because of the company he kept, Mandela was placed on the Terrorists List in the 1980s and, shamefully, his name was not removed until 2008. No apology was ever offered. Why was he a threat? Because the democratic, freedom loving Western powers turned their back on the struggle for freedom in South Africa. Mandela then turned to whomever was willing to help, including Church groups around the world, Libya’s Gadhafi, Cuba’s Castro and other people we did not like. He even joined the communist party. To our shame, they all helped him in the fight to claim those rights that our founding fathers declared to be the heritage of ALL human beings.

Was Nelson Mandela perfect? Of course not! Only myths are perfect. The real man had his faults. He failed to see the evil of abortion, had three failed marriages and his bursts of anger were well known to his inner circle. On the other side, he preached and lived many Gospel values such as justice, equality, forgiveness, peace and the willingness to die for these ideals. He was, like you and me, a mixture of lights and shadows, redeemed by Jesus and numbered among the greatest because he embodied universal ideals most of us only dream of.

Pictured: Nelson Mandela visiting Pope John Paul II, Comboni Press