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.

I'm not sure we have that same determination in this country. It seems easier for us to give up, get tired, become discouraged, withdraw to more personal and family concerns, and move on to other things when change doesn't come as we hoped or expected. We don't have the long-term perspective that enables us to survive the lack of immediate results.

Perhaps that's because we have yet to do what our South African brothers and sisters did—to bet our lives on the hope of transformation. When you invest everything you have on the necessity of change instead of just experimenting for a while with new possibilities, you are required to sustain and determine your life by stubborn hope. That's what the South Africans did, and that is their challenge to us. They "stayed in the struggle." And they won.

Second, there was the strength of leadership. Virtually everyone I talked with in South Africa spoke of the critical importance of Mandela's leadership. For 27 years in prison, this future president arose at 5 a.m. to prepare for a new South Africa. With no expectation of ever even being released, he exercised a remarkable visionary leadership.

The Robben Island prison where South Africa's most feared political prisoners were kept became known as "Mandela University." The depth of his wisdom, the generosity of his spirit, the strength of his character, and, most of all, the clarity of his call were abundantly evident as the new South Africa emerged.

But the strength of leadership in the new South Africa extends beyond Mandela. The ANC leadership cadres have also been shaped by years of suffering and struggle and, in many cases, by long terms of exile or prison. The role of women in that new South African leadership is very apparent, as exemplified by respected elders like Albertina Sisulu along with the many young women who are new Members of Parliament (80 women in all).

Of particular significance was the exemplary role of many church leaders. Names such as Desmond Tutu, Beyers Naudé, and Frank Chikane will always have an honored place in the struggle for South African freedom. On every level of the new South Africa, strong and vital leadership is powerfully evident, which bodes very well for the future.

In many places of strife and conflict around the world today, such leadership is painfully absent. I believe it was the presence of gifted and committed leadership in South Africa that prevented their country from taking the path of destruction that so many other nations have taken. But such leadership must not only be faithfully offered, it must be gratefully received.

What was so remarkable was the way Mandela's leadership was accepted, by his people and even by his adversaries. For leadership to be effective, it must not only be exercised, it must be affirmed.

But we have a problem in this country with the very idea of leadership, perhaps especially in peace and justice movements. A popular bumper sticker in countercultural circles proclaims "Question Authority." That, of course, is perfectly appropriate and necessary. Leadership must be accountable, and it should be marked by service and not by domination, as Mandela himself points out.

But we often carry it further here. In response to many people's experience with abusive leadership, we prefer no leadership at all. An emphasis on process, consensus, and a flat egalitarianism in many movement circles makes it most difficult or even impossible for genuine leadership to emerge or function effectively. In the religious and secular Left, leadership is highly distrusted and regularly undermined, especially the leadership gifts of men. While admiration of leadership in other places is voiced (as in the case of Mandela), it is not really allowed to be exercised here.

Particularly in white peace and justice groups, leadership is often not affirmed and supported, but rather tolerated and suspected at best. In such a hostile climate, leadership cannot be evoked, nourished, and flourish. And movements without effective leadership will never succeed. Instead, they inevitably exhaust themselves in internal conflict.

The alternative to bad leadership is good leadership, not no leadership. Movements, institutions, churches, and nations need good, sensitive, inclusive, serving, and accountable leadership—but they need leadership. Leadership is needed to offer prophetic vision, to catalyze movements, to symbolize change, and to mobilize people. Dissent does not necessarily require strong leadership gifts, but social transformation does. We will never move from dissent to transformation until we come to terms with the need for a positive attitude toward leadership.

Finally, there was the unswerving commitment to social transformation. They actually believed that fundamental change was possible, and they determined to accept nothing less. For South Africans, it was always a matter of when, not whether, the victory would come.

I recall being told in 1988 by township young people that millions of them might have to die first, but that South Africa would be free! It was an extraordinary willingness to sacrifice and suffer that made this victory possible. Transformation requires that kind of commitment; dissent does not. Dissent can be offered while still retaining a comfortable position in the old order.

Are we ready to make the transition from dissent to transformation? It will require much more of us, but the results could also be extraordinary. Or are we content with just offering our dissent, from places of relative privilege and comfort? People know the things we are against, but are we as well known by the things we are for? Progressive movements have shown their capacity for critique, but have we shown the discipline and creativity needed for constructing new alternatives? We can tear down, but can we build up?

We have learned not to despise small beginnings, and the gospel parable of the mustard seed as a sign of the kingdom is one of our favorites. But the promise of the mustard seed is that it will grow into a great shrub tree of life and justice, offering shade for many and branches for rest and peace.

Sometimes I wonder if we are content or even committed to remaining mustard seeds and afraid of growing into a tree. If our society has made an idol of bigness and success, have peace and justice movements made one of smallness and lack of success? Sometimes I also wonder if our greatest fear is that the visions we believe in might someday be embraced by others, many of them different than ourselves, so that we would then have to contend with making them practical in the midst of life's realities.

Are we ready to persevere in our own struggle for spiritual and social transformation? Are we prepared to accept the responsibilities of leadership in the church and the society? Are we committed to building strong new movements and institutions that have the capacity to change a nation? Are we prepared not only to see the old pass away, but also the new come into being?

The triumph of the human spirit in South Africa is too important merely to celebrate. We must learn from it. The South African victory of freedom has the capacity not only to infuse us with hope, but also to generate a new and far-reaching dialogue among us about our own quest for justice and healing.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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