Today is Nelson Mandela’s birthday, and I am among many who will wish him many happy returns.
I visited South Africa a few years ago with a church delegation. It takes about a half-hour sail to get from Cape Town to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen years in a narrow cell in which he was only barely able to lie flat. If you go there you’ll be told by a former inmate about the prisoners’ back-breaking manual labour. You’ll be told how those who could read and count taught those who could not; how pencils were so rare that they were broken into several pieces and shared out. No wonder Mandela was later to say that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. You’ll be shown the strip of land which Nelson Mandela was eventually given to cultivate. And you’ll sail back to Cape Town an hour and a half later less inclined to irrelevant chatter than when you sailed out, perhaps reflecting on what Mandela said about freedom: “It’s not merely to cast off one’s own chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”.
One of the people I met in South Africa had been the prison chaplain on Robben Island for some of the time Nelson Mandela was there. He was a tall, physically overpowering Afrikaaner who I am sure wasn’t given to sentimentality or emotionalism. I asked him how it happened that the transition from apartheid to majority rule had been achieved without violence. He simply said “Nelson Mandela”.
Mandela once said he wasn’t a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying. Exactly right!
Loving God we give thanks for all who teach us how wisely and well to use the freedom which is your gift. Amen.