Nelson Mandela: A man of granitelike grace

PRETORIA, South Africa —

When Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela began attending school and church in his tiny rural village in the early 1920s, he adopted Nelson as his “Christian name.” Before that, though, he was known simply as Rolihlahla, a traditional name that basically means “troublemaker.”

Not many would associate Mandela with that type of word. His image is of grace and forgiveness and very cool shirts. But to forget this very important part of this great man’s legacy is to sanitize it, make him into the image that others wanted — grandfatherly, jiving, smiling.

Steely determination

I encountered Mandela a number of times, and he was an amazing person to be around. But, while reflecting as the world gathers at my doorstep to bid him farewell, the first thing that comes to mind was his granite-like grace. Mandela stood his ground with a steadfastness that was often disconcerting because the media image of him was quickly made grandfatherly. If he chose to do something, however, he did it and was not easily swayed. It wasn’t that he was stubborn, for that diminishes the person, but he had a grit and determination that surprised even those closest to him. On one occasion he quietly and resolutely upbraided his staff for making him late. He never raised his voice, but rather told a story — a very important part of our African custom — and had his staff in tears.

Mandela service
A young man pays tribute to former South African President Nelson Mandela at First National Bank Stadium in Johannesburg during Mandela’s memorial service Dec. 10. CNS photo by Reuters CNS photo by Reuters

Mandela also was a very organized and disciplined man. In my current parish assignment, the presidency is part of the parish and parishioners have told me of encountering the man on the street every morning as they walked their dogs and he took his all-important exercise. Old boxers’ habits don’t die easily. His desk was immaculate and almost rigid in its organization. It seemed the discipline of a third of his life in a brutal prison system had made its mark.

But the one thing that really stands out for me — and I can only imagine that it is the coming together of a number of different influences — was the way Mandela treated people. He saw eye to eye. Whether you were the parishioner walking the dogs in the morning or the person in a squatter camp or a dignitary, you never took on a more important position. You were equal to him and he to you. I doubt I have ever met a person more able to exemplify how to treat people equally. He lived this value.

This attitude is “troublemaking” in the South Africa where I grew up — and troublemaking for the world in which we live. We are taught to work and relate in a profoundly disturbing way: by either looking down on or up to others. To encounter them as equals is to be troublesome.

If we are to take Nelson Mandela’s legacy and truly live it out, we must commit to live as he did. To look upon one another as equals. I can only imagine that this was a granite-determined choice that he made. If your whole life is spent fighting systems of oppression, then you get to the point of choosing a life of bitterness and revenge or one of living out your values unshakably. He did this.

Model for reconciliation

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Tens of thousands of people gathered at Johannesburg FNB stadium for the four-hour service. CNS photo by Reuters

Was Mandela a saint? No. A great man, yes, but no saint. I doubt any modern politicians and lawyers are. He presided over a government that baton-charged abortion-on-demand into our lives and country. He was first a loyal servant of the African National Congress, the party he served for many years and for whom he shaped so much policy. Sometimes, that has been a surprising legacy and not one easily sanitized.

He did, however, exemplify how simple granite grace and dignity could be the point of encounter for reconciliation. He was the master of the symbolic gesture, from visiting the widow of the founder of apartheid and having tea with her, to the way that he chose to work the often petty political systems in the world. He modeled, on many levels, an approach to person that was instantly disarming.

Grace after chaos

The weekend after Mandela died, I asked how many of my parishioners remembered the fraught times between 1985 and 1994.

These were violent times ruled by violent men and women. South Africa was not a nice place to be. We lived in a constant state of panic and despair. We were militarized and monitored. The ruling white elite chose attack as its preferred method of defense. We were embattled and under siege. I had to register for the military at the age of 16 and going there was inevitable — it was that or flee the country.

“The greatest way we can acknowledge the life of Nelson Mandela is to strive for the ideals he cherished: freedom, equality and democracy, and to defend these ideals from those who would corrupt them.”

— Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference statement on Mandela’s death

The burden of violence, of separation and the antagonism of race politics was part of our very fiber. The thought of the possibility of a peaceful change, of an inclusive society and a future seemed beyond us. We had no hope.

The negotiations for our future dragged on for months into years. The venue was raided by right-wing white people desperate to ensure a future in the land they felt entitled to by God himself.

And then we met great men and women. I think that was our biggest shock. Granite had become granite grace. We met men and women who were determined to destroy the systems of discrimination and separation not only by violence but by encounter. In the moments of greatest stress, the tipping point was reached and could have gone quickly over to violence and all out warfare. It didn’t. This was by grace and granite grace. A steely determination to seek out the good, the possible, the common good. And that was disarming.

I have lived through a period of profound grace in what the retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the “rainbow nation.” I have lived through the dismantling of the apartheid system and the installation of a finely crafted mechanism for every person to be a person. I have witnessed the profound change open and inclusive schooling has on children and the future. I see how we can still disagree profoundly with government without having to resort to violence or belligerence.

I have also seen how a man of granite grace surrounded by like-minded people can change the destiny of 50 million people.

I watch Twitter closely. One tweet said, “Could the next Nelson Mandela please stand up?” On my timeline, the very next (unrelated) tweet was: “Imagine a world in which 50 million Nelson Mandelas stood up.” Both are important points to ponder, indeed.

Father Chris Townsend is pastor of Christ the King Church in Queenswood, Pretoria, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @padre_chris.