I stared deep into the night sky yesterday. A million stars stared back quietly, shedding tears of light. Which of them holds your great soul, Old Nelson?
In Christian lore, the lone deity of the universe created the world in six days. On the seventh day, his labours done, he rested. And thus began a golden tradition of rest following a period of sweet labour. Each life that comes into the world someday finds its seventh day of rest; in the case of Nelson Rohlilahla Mandela, this seventh day came last night in his 95th year, and he now reposes in a dreamless sleep alongside his ancestors, his place of rest adorned by a crown aglow with the love and respect won over seventy years by his million labours for globe and nation.
When his mother, a simple village woman, brought him forth and held him aloft in the early morning light ninety-five years ago, what hopes and dreams did she have for him? We know that her people had lived under subjugation for two hundred years. We know that they had been driven off their fertile lands and interned in harsh reservations; hundreds of thousands had been wiped out and survivors consigned to a life stripped of all strands of human dignity; and across their borders in friendly lands where a distressed heart might have found something to latch onto for dear hope, their black brothers and sisters had suffered a like fate from Namibia through Botswana to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. What bright hopes could she, a new mother, have had for a fragile baby alighting onto this bleak scene of hate and unrelenting cruelty? Did the circumstances of her people leave her with any bright hopes at all for him or did she expect nothing but a life filled with terror and hopelessness?
I rejoice that whatever her expectations, when we look back across the expanse of his years we can all agree that her boy lived a truly successful life. Among his many fine qualities some will say his courage shone brightest, others his forgiving spirit, yet others still his statesman’s vision. I consider that the lesson he left us in his extraordinary capacity for the endurance of scorn and thorn shall be his greatest legacy. Mandela, like Gandhi, taught us by example that where we stake out the bounds of our endurance, just there shall lie the bounds of our power to do our will. He who will endure nothing can therefore have no power to act according to his will, while those who will endure the slings and arrows of an oppressor will trim the oppressor’s power over them by a quantity proportional to the scope of their endurance.
So by enduring vicious attacks for defying racial discrimination laws, he eroded the apartheid regime’s power to confine him to racially prescribed rights while increasing his own power to exercise the rights of a free man, albeit under stress.
And by enduring nearly three decades in prison, he denied the apartheid regime power to have him bargain away the rights of his people in exchange for his own freedom, power that it sought desperately but in vain.
Then by enduring the fiery criticisms of certain quarters of his victorious people for refusing to pursue their erstwhile tormentors, he denied them power to exact revenge while increasing his own power to bring healing to the nation.
Returning to the day of his birth, I think the midwife on duty that day, while breathless with joy, announced him thus: “It’s a boy!” With hindsight, she should rather have said: “It’s a man!” And what a man!
May the shade of the Lord’s throne fall upon his place of rest through all eternity.