Lessons from the Celebration

The transformation of South Africa is one of the most significant events of our time. It therefore deserves serious reflection. The miraculous victory of South Africa's long freedom struggle was not inevitable and must not be treated as such. Things could have gone very differently; indeed, conventional wisdom expected a quite different outcome. The unraveling of that beautiful nation into a downward spiral of violence, hatred, chaos, and endless racial and civil war was a logical expectation. We have recently seen such horrendous social disintegration in too many other places.

How do we explain the triumph of both justice and forgiveness in South Africa? What are the lessons we can learn? What insights can be applied to our own struggles for social change?

Books could and should be written on this subject, but let me offer some initial reflections based upon a long-term involvement with the South African struggle and its people.

First, there was the power of persistence. The phrase one always heard in South Africa was "stay in the struggle." I have never seen a situation where there were more reasons to give up. But people never did. The sheer determination of South Africa's black majority and their few white allies was finally rewarded with victory. They always believed that, one day, they would be free. During so many periods of persecution, suffering, and despair, they were about the only ones who did believe. It was always easier for others to give up on South Africa.

I will never forget the answer of a 14-year-old boy in a black township outside of Pretoria when, in 1988, I asked him if his children would ever breathe free air in South Africa. "I will see to it!" was his determined reply. I thought of him, and the millions like him, as I witnessed the inauguration of Nelson Mandela and a new South Africa.

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Sojourners Magazine August 1994
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