The Common Good
July 1994

The Miracle of South Africa

by Jim Wallis | July 1994

The miraculous events in South
Africa made hope possible for me again. I
was there for the transformation—the inauguration of a new South Africa—and
will never ...

The miraculous events in South Africa made hope possible for me again. I was there for the transformation—the inauguration of a new South Africa—and will never be the same. Never again can I say that hope is not a concrete reality. Never again can I say that anything is impossible.

The people of South Africa have opened the way for the rest of us to believe.

Having been through the hard times with the South African people, I wanted now to be there for the celebration. Still bleary-eyed after a 14-hour flight to Johannesburg, I arrived at the famous FNB stadium in Soweto for what was billed as a "National Service of Thanksgiving" just two days before Nelson Mandela's inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Brigalia Bam of the South African Council of Churches welcomed the joyous crowd on this sun-drenched afternoon by describing the recent events in her country as a "miracle." I would hear that word over and over again in the extraordinary days that followed.

The FNB stadium has been the site of recent memorial services for murdered African National Congress leader Chris Hani and the ANC's revered former president, Oliver Tambo, as well as countless other funerals over the years. At Hani's funeral, a speaker lamented, "We have become accustomed to coming here to share our grief. May this be the last time we come to express only our sorrow. When will we come to share our joy?"

This was that day. The black township pastor sitting next to me called it a day of "celebration and release." New hope was now bursting forth all around the stadium under the bright blue South African sky.

THE ENORMOUS contrast between the old South Africa and the new nation I was watching be born was almost overwhelming. I was here previously for almost six weeks during 1988. All of the freedom movement's political leaders and organizations had been imprisoned, exiled, banned, silenced, or killed.

Courageous church leaders like Desmond Tutu, Frank Chikane, Allan Boesak, and Beyers Naudé had risen up to fill the vacuum and the white government was cracking down on those churches and church leaders who dared to oppose apartheid. We had to be snuck into the country after being invited to offer support and to bring out the story of the church's resistance.

That visit was a time of both great fear and stubborn hope among the people of South Africa. The prospects for change looked extremely dismal, the cost of resistance was very high, and the possibility of South Africa ever being free appeared painfully remote. The ominous presence of the police and military dominated everything.

The simplest everyday activities were fraught with tension; all of human life seemed to be under constant siege for the majority of South Africa's people. I was constantly amazed at the spirit of determination I found, despite the predictions of almost everyone else around the world that a free South Africa was a vain and distant hope.

Most expected an eventual bloodbath in that tragic land. Even in the days leading up to the April 1994 elections, many feared massive violence and a plunge into civil war. The amazing sight of peaceful, patient voting lines of black and white South Africans together ending apartheid seemed utterly unrealistic just a short time ago. But as someone commented to me during this trip to South Africa, "Oppressed people cannot afford to be realistic."

Now, a stadium of people who had just voted for a political transformation rose to pray together and give thanks for their miracle:

O God, our loving Eternal Parent, we praise you with a great shout of joy! Your ruling power has proved victorious! For centuries our land seemed too dark for sunrise, too bloody for healing, too sick for recovery, too hateful for reconciliation. But you have brought us into the daylight of liberation; you have healed us with new hope; you have stirred us to believe our nation can be reborn; we see the eyes of our sisters and brothers shining with resolve to build a new South Africa. Accept our prayers of thanksgiving.

Leaders of formerly divided races and churches formed a circle around a rough-hewn wooden cross for a liturgy of reconciliation. In turn, each read a portion of a new commitment to one another and to a new South Africa. The entire congregation then affirmed, "We are all Africans. We commit ourselves to discover an African solution, under God."

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu concluded, with unrestrained joy, "We used to say, We will be free—black and white together. Today we say, We are the rainbow people of God! We are free!"

At that moment, the peace was shared—across the borders of more than 300 years of enmity in South Africa. There were great smiles, joyous embraces, vigorous handshakes, long and tearful hugs, until the whole stadium finally erupted in singing and dancing. In his sermon, a Methodist bishop and former political prisoner on Robben Island said, "Our beloved country cries no longer."

President-elect Mandela rose to speak. He asked us to remember "those who would have liked to have been here today but could not." The emotion in the stadium was easily felt as we recalled those who had died in the long struggle for freedom.

For 46 years the people of South Africa had lived under the most brutal forms of racial oppression in the system of apartheid, Mandela told the crowd. "Nothing I can say can fully describe the misery of our people as a result of that oppression, but the day we have been fighting for and waiting for has come. We are saying, Let us forget the past, let us hold hands, it is time now to begin anew. The time has come for men and women, African, colored, Indian, white, Afrikaans and English-speaking, to say we are one country, we are one people."

Over and over, during these historic days, the truth about the past was told—then the past was forgiven. The words of forgiveness and reconciliation were heard from Mandela and the former president F.W. de Klerk, from the ANC to the National Party and even the Inkatha Freedom Party, from white suburbanites to black township youth.

But Mandela set the tone. He invited his former jailers to be special guests at his inauguration, and he invited his opponents into the new government. He called on militant young people from angry townships to learn the words to the Afrikaner national anthem "Die Stem" ("The Call of South Africa") and challenged whites to learn the African national anthem "Nkosi Sikelel' i Africa" ("God Bless Africa")—both of which are the new national anthems of South Africa.

ON MONDAY, MAY 9, in Cape Town, former political prisoners were sworn in as new Members of Parliament. I spent the night before the ceremony in the violence-torn township of Guguletu with the family of Phumzile Ngcuka Mlambo, one of the ANC's new MPs. She and her husband, Bulelani, still in their 30s, are longtime community activists. Both have been imprisoned and tortured, but they embody the hopeful spirit of the new South Africa. The whole family was very excited that night, anticipating the next day's events.

"I've never been beyond the gate of Parliament before," Phumzile said. "And whenever I went, there were always dogs and I was always in trouble. Now everyone smiles at me; it's all very strange." Barney Pityana, an old friend and former associate of Steve Biko, came by and we all excitedly talked together, into the night, about the elections and the new political possibilities. Hope pulsated around the room. "See," said Phumzile to her American friends, "don't give up on humanity!"

The next morning, Phumzile and Bulelani invited another American, Jean Sindab, and >myself to go with them. At the huge fortified gate of the South African Parliament—a dramatic symbol of the closed system of apartheid—police quickly came to our car. Bulelani rolled down his window and confidently announced, "Member of Parliament!" Like a miracle, the gate of the old swung open and we drove right through into the new.

Inside, we stood together on the Parliament steps as new leaders ascended into the building to take their places. Thabo Mbeki, in exile since he was a small boy, now one of the two new deputy presidents, walked up the stairs, as did Joe Slovo, the ANC elder statesman whose wife, Ruth First, was blown up several years ago by a letter bomb.

"Were you always hopeful?" the press asked Slovo. "Not always," replied the South African Communist Party member. "Sometimes you would ask, How long, oh Lord?"

Many of these former freedom fighters obviously could still hardly believe this was happening. More than one person said they were half expecting to wake up and tell everyone about the wonderful dream they had.

The happiest archbishop in the world arrived. Desmond Tutu told the press, "It's a transfiguration—this country has gone through an incredible transfiguration. Victory is ours—all of ours, black and white, all of ours....Hoo Hah!"

In simple, solemn, and moving ceremony, the new president, his deputies, and the Members of Parliament from all South Africa's races and parties took their oath of office and pledged their loyalty to the new South Africa. Albertina Sisulu, called by many the "mother of the movement" and now a new MP, was chosen for the honor of officially nominating Nelson Mandela for president. Eighty women in all were installed in a Parliament of 400, including Frene Ginwala as speaker.

Afterward, President Mandela, and the two deputy presidents, Mbeki and F.W. de Klerk, emerged from the Parliament building to meet the press and stand together for a historic photo. Even the media stood quietly in respectful tribute as the band played both national anthems. No one said a word; there were more than a few tears as we watched the emotion-filled faces of the three political leaders who will shape a new South African nation.

When the band finished playing "Nkosi Sikelel' i Africa," a lone voice shouted the traditional call, Amandla ("Power"), to which the crowd responded, Awethu ("To the people"). Mandela smiled, and another person began to sing "We Have Overcome."

One hundred thousand people were gathered at the Grand Parade to hear Mandela speak. This was the first place he had spoken to the people of South Africa on February 11, 1990, after being released from 27 years in prison. When Mandela now appeared on the balcony of the city hall, as president of a democratic South Africa, a mighty roar went up.

"The people of South Africa have spoken in this election," said Mandela. "They want change—and change they will get." The 75-year-old leader continued a theme of reconciliation: "We speak not as conquerors, but as fellow citizens seeking to heal the wounds of the past." In a dramatic gesture, Mandela released a flock of beautiful white doves into the cloudless sky, to the delight of the masses below. In a land known for blood and death, peace had come to South Africa.

I SPOKE WITH Archbishop Tutu on the flight back to Johannesburg that afternoon. After serving as master of ceremonies for the city hall event, he was still more excited than tired. The next day, he would say a prayer for the nation at the inauguration. "Incredible," he kept repeating.

I reminded him of what he said to the South African rulers just six years before, in a packed St. George's Cathedral: "You may be powerful, indeed, very powerful. But you are not God. You are ordinary mortals! God—the God whom we worship—cannot be mocked. You have already lost....We are inviting you to come and join the winning side." Finally they decided to do so, and most South African whites seemed happy about it. Today was the vindication of faith and hope, the demonstration that both, in the end, are stronger than political power.

Archbishop Tutu expressed gratitude for the long support by the overseas friends of South African freedom and said this was our day too. The South African miracle has the real potential to infuse hope into every other struggle for freedom, justice, and peace throughout the world. In an irony of history, the nation that was once the world's pariah now has the potential to provide the models the world most needs.

On Tuesday, May 10, 1994, more heads of state than had been together at any time since the funeral of John F. Kennedy came to Pretoria for the inauguration of Mandela. But they were not the real story. Thousands upon thousands of South Africans of all races, classes, and ages of men, women, and children filled the great lawns of the historic Union Building, while the whole nation watched and a billion others joined them from around the world. Today the government of South Africa took on the many colors of the nation itself.

Never have I seen such a large crowd so incredibly orderly, dignified, disciplined, cooperative, graceful, and united; never have I been with so many happy and joyous people. When the crowd wanted to stand up, we all stood up together to clap, sing, or dance. When people were ready to sit down, we all sat down. Despite the hot autumn sun, the huge audience never lost its enthusiasm. A thousand South African artists were on hand to lead the people in the most gala celebration this country had ever seen.

A giant television screen gave the assembled multitude a close-up view of all the proceedings. As the national anthems were played and the oath of office taken, Mandela's face, projected on the huge screen, captured my attention. His is a face carved by discipline and solitude. I could see the memories of the struggle in his eyes, the pain of fallen comrades not here for this moment. His expression showed quiet determination and dignity, vindication and humility, gladness and serious recognition of the vast leadership responsibilities that lie ahead. It was the strongest yet gentlest face I have ever seen, a face you would instinctively trust.

Mandela's inaugural address was a "rainbow covenant" of promises to his people. "We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity—a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world." Mandela vowed that "never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will experience the oppression of one by another."

In a ringing appeal for reconciliation, he proclaimed, "The time for healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to rebuild is upon us."

The next day in Soweto, Frank Chikane, former general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, told me, "What happened is a miracle, and can only be sustained as a miracle." The conversation has already begun about the enormous challenges the new South Africa faces and about what the prophetic role of the church must be. But this was a week for celebration. As long as I live, I will never forget the feeling of standing with thousands of celebrating South African people, listening to the words of Mandela. With tears and joy we heard Mandela proclaim, "We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of millions of our people."

Who would have thought that the people of South Africa would teach the world the power of hope? It is that power which has the capacity to transform us all.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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