Nelson Mandela

Traveling with South African 'Ex-Cons' to D.C.

Photo by Tom Getman

President Kgalema Motlanthe, Jim Wallis, and Denis Goldberg. Photo by Tom Getman

I was privileged to co-host with former colleagues the visit of former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, an ex-convict from the apartheid era. He served 10 years in prison for the “treasonous” act of standing against the Afrikaans Nationalist regime, along with Nelson Mandela and 1000s of others who spent many years on Robben Island or in Pretoria Central Prison. Many died in the process. President Motlanthe was accompanied by Denis Goldberg, who was convicted along with Mandela and served 22 years. Nicholas Wolpe, the facilitator of the trip, is a cousin of the late Congressman Howard Wolpe. Nic’s father would have been one of the Rivonia accused at the trial in 1963-4 but for having made a daring famous escape with several other comrades.

Neither Despair Nor Complacency

IN JUNE 1966, Sen. Robert Kennedy joined the National Union of South African Students for a conference held in Cape Town. Tension was running high. NUSAS president Ian Robertson had been banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, and the pressure was on Kennedy, from both the apartheid government and sectors of the anti-apartheid movement, not to attend.

Kennedy went anyway and delivered one of the best speeches of his career. “Few have the greatness to bend history itself,” Kennedy reminded the students. “But each time a [person] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, [s/he] sends forth a tiny ripple of hope ... daring those ripples to build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Twenty-eight years later Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. The West embraced him, celebrating his magnanimity, “disremembering” the support it gave to the very apartheid regime Mandela worked to dismantle.

In the years that followed, Mandela’s leadership enabled a country to project itself beyond the cognitive illusion that suggested there was no way out of a pending Armageddon. He insisted that things only seem impossible until there is the will to make them possible. He created and energized that will, injecting optimism and political excitement into a desperate situation. When an overenthusiastic supporter called Mandela a “saint,” he responded, “No, just a sinner who keeps trying.”

At the time of Kennedy’s 1966 speech, however, Nelson Mandela was in prison, serving a life sentence for sabotage under apartheid; no one realized he was among the “few” who would succeed in bending history. And as we know now, there are certain things that even Mandela could not do.

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What Can Mandela's Jail Cell Teach Us About Leadership?

Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island, Photo by Konrad Glogowski / Flickr.

Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island, Photo by Konrad Glogowski / Flickr.

I believe that Nelson Mandela was the greatest political leader of the 20th century — because of his 27 years of spiritual formation in prison. Visiting Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island was the most emotional moment of my visit to South Africa this past summer. How could such a small place so change the world?

I found this quote by Mandela when I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on my last day in South Africa. It’s about how “the cell” drove him much deeper into his interior life. I think his words are a good reflection for us as we choose our elected leaders next week:

“The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself.”

Let’s reflect on that quote, both personally as leaders in the faith, and politically as we confront a very depressing election.

Know yourselfThat is such different advice from what our candidates and other leaders get from their advisors and pollsters and boards of directors who want them to know their audience, their constituency, their potential voters or consumers — but not so much themselves. Leaders are often being told to “be who they need you to be,” and seldom are they invited to go deeper into themselves.

Finding Hope in South Africa

SOUTH AFRICA has meant a lot to Sojourners over the years. In the 1980s, I was invited to come to South Africa by key church leaders there, including Beyers Naudé, the first white minister defrocked by the Dutch Reformed Church for opposing apartheid; Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town; theologian and preacher Alan Boesak; and Frank Chikane, a Pentecostal minister who came up through the ranks of the movement to lead the South African Council of Churches.

They became my “comrades,” as they say in South Africa, for six weeks that happened to fall during Lent—it was a powerful season for me of seeing and feeling the pain of that beloved country while looking for the hope that comes from people who make costly commitments. Together we worked on a strategy between South African and U.S. church leaders to end apartheid.

Ten years later I returned to witness the victory of that hope in the miracle of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first black president, and later came back for an international reunion of anti-apartheid activists.Those formative years in the South African movement for freedom helped give me my theology of hope—which I learned means believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.

This August, I returned to South Africa for a speaking and book tour, and I decided to bring my family to show them the country that had changed my life. I had come originally as a young man, blessed to be thrust into this historic struggle with a heroic generation of South African leaders. This time, I came as an older man, blessed again—by making deep connections with a new generation who are finding their own agenda and mission for helping to build a new South Africa.

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Five Spiritual Resolutions for 2014: What Elders, Suffering, and Loss Have Taught Me About the Gospel

Beginning a new year. Photo: canonzoom via Shutterstock

This past year taught me so much about the gospel and caused me to go deeper into my faith. As this new year begins, here are five spiritual resolutions I learned from last year:

1. Return to the gospel. Gordon Cosby, the founder and pastor of The Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. passed away in early 2013. He was a mentor, elder, and spiritual director to me. I miss Gordon greatly and often have things I would like to talk with him about. But I usually know what he would say to me and it would always be about returning to the gospel. In his last sermon, spoken from his death bed, he spoke of Jesus’ “clear and frightening statement that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

National Cathedral Bids a Warm, Prayerful Goodbye to Nelson Mandela

Photo courtesy Donovan Marks / Washington National Cathedral. Via RNS.

Joe Biden was a young senator from Delaware when he was first exposed to the evils of apartheid. As the only white lawmaker in a congressional delegation to South Africa, he resisted security officers who tried to usher him through one door, and his more senior black colleagues through another.

“I had what we Catholics call an epiphany,” the vice president said Wednesday as official Washington packed the National Cathedral to recall the life and legacy of former South African President Nelson Mandela.

“He was the most impressive man or woman I have ever met in my life,” Biden said of Mandela, who died peacefully on Dec. 5.

Remembering the Greatest Political Leader of the 20th Century: Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela died on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013. catwalker/Shutterstock

Today I had the great honor of saying a prayer at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the most important political leader of the 20th century. This was an honor, not only because of Mandela’s stature on the world’s stage, but because he was someone I admired very deeply and personally. His fight for justice and reconciliation is one that has inspired me in the work that we do at Sojourners.

There were several highlights of the service today. There were several choirs, two of which brought each mourner to their feet, clapping along to their versions of Shosholoza and Siyahamba. There were many beautiful speeches and recitations, including a reading of Maya Angelou’s poem for Mandela called “His Day is Done.”

But what stood out to me the most was the homily by Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, Director of the Desmond Tutu Center at Christian Theological Seminary, Butler University. As he paid tribute to Mandela’s life and described his “long walk to freedom,” he punctuated his remarks with “it ain’t over, until God says it’s done,” a quote from Maurette Brown-Clark’s song of the same name.