Christo Brand was a jailer responsible for guarding Nelson Mandela at Robben Island and then at Pollsmoor Prison. Speaking about the relationship which developed between the two men, Mandela said it "reinforced my belief in the essential humanity of even those who had kept me behind bars."
Prisoner warder Paul Gregory and Mandela developed a bond during his long captivity, according to the anti-apartheid
Percy Yutar was the state prosecutor at the 1963 Rivonia treason trial at which Mandela was convicted of sabotage and sentenced to hard labor for life. Yutar demanded the death penalty for Mandela. In 1995, Mandela invited Yutar to dinner where they enjoyed a kosher meal. Mandela said that Yutar had only been doing his job.
During the apartheid era, few symbols summed up oppression for Mandela and his ANC colleagues more than the hated green Springbok jersey. At home matches, the pens in which black South Africans were made to stand were always full of fans cheering the opposition. So Mandela was making a huge statement by wearing a green jersey at the World Cup final in 1995. He presented the trophy to South African captain Francois Pienaar, sending out a strong message… that it was time to put aside enmity and become a united country.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela describes the cases that came to him as a lawyer serving Africans in Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1950s.
It was a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the streets past eleven, a crime not to have a pass book and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live.
Every week we interviewed old men from the countryside who told us that generation after generation of their family had worked a scraggly piece of land from which they were now being evicted. Every week we interviewed old women who brewed African beer as a way to supplement tiny incomes, who now faced jail terms and fines they could not afford to pay. Every week we interviewed people who had lived in the same house for decades only to find that it was now declared a white area and they had to leave without any recompense at all. Every day we heard and saw the thousands of humiliations that ordinary Africans confronted every day of their lives.
Mandela is describing only a small part of the apartheid regime that dominated South Africa for a period of several decades of the 20th century, in which the racism and greed of colonialism became law. Apartheid was marked by murder, torture, and brutality, by political repression and widespread human rights violations, by theft and impoverishment, and by systemic racial oppression.
Since Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5, 2013, I’ve been devouring stories and writings about his life and legacy, from his tribal childhood, through his rise as a young political leader within the African National Congress, to his twenty seven years as a political prisoner, to his release and election as the President of South Africa, to his role in helping to bring stability to a nation in which a white minority has subjugated the other 80% of the population.
As people around the world have celebrated his life and memory, Mandela has been celebrated and honored, as a leader of forgiveness, a leader of healing, and a force for reconciliation. Those memorializing him have focused on the power of his forgiveness. African-American syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts put it bluntly, “Mandela forgave. He forgave the government that segregated him to the margins of society and made him an outsider in his own country. He forgave the jailers who tried to break his body and spirit during his long incarceration. He forgave his country for hating him.”
Tributes like these are inspiring. They describe a spiritual capacity so far beyond what most mere mortals are capable of. These stories stir us. And, frankly, they’re also somewhat troubling and disconcerting at the same time. When we talk about forgiving Apartheid, one has to ask whether there are any limits of forgiveness. How does one forgive decades of systemic murder, torture, brutality, repression, theft, and impoverishment? How does one even begin to forgive?
What are the limits of forgiveness? How is it possible to speak of forgiving the Rwandan genocide? The killing fields of Cambodia? Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans? War crimes and atrocities? In our own nation’s history, what would it mean – what would it look like – to forgive the slave trade, slavery, and Jim Crow? How in the world would one even begin to think about forgiving the Native American genocide, the Trail of Tears, forced displacement, and the reservation system? Can forgiveness ever be mentioned in the same sentence as the Holocaust? Are there limits to forgiveness?
Returning to South Africa, coming back to Nelson Mandela, we’ve been hearing these stories over the past month. We’ve been hearing about Mandela inviting his prison guards to his inauguration and breaking bread with his tormentors. We’ve heard, over and over again, Mandela’s quote about leaving prison after twenty seven years as a political prisoner. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
How are we to evaluate these actions, these words? Do we find them heroic? Do we find them challenging? Or, seen differently, do we find them at all distressing? Do any of us say, to Mandela and to the South African people, you have a perfectly acceptable reason for being angry, for being bitter? Such a response is understandable, isn’t it?
At the most recent meeting of the worship team and during the most recent meeting of Wednesday evening’s sermon small group, I asked the members of these groups for their reactions to these various examples of forgiveness offered by Mandela – inviting a prison guard to his inauguration, wearing the green jersey and shaking the hand of the rugby captain, and so on. Several members talked about how moved and amazed they are by this capacity for forgiveness. One person told me about a trip she had taken to Cambodia. She engaged one of her guides in conversation and the conversation turned to the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. The genocide they perpetrated against their own people accounted for somewhere in the neighborhood of two million deaths, roughly twenty percent of the country’s population. The guide claimed that the country had forgiven and moved on. This guide obviously can’t speak for a nation, and something may have been lost in translation. But, what do we make out of a statement like that? Another member of the church I spoke with had a different reaction to Mandela as a figure of forgiveness. He said, “Call me a cynic, but all that seems like a bunch of political theater.”
In the articles I’ve read, I’ve been fascinated by a few writes who have complicated Mandela’s relationship with forgiveness. Writing for the New York Times Magazine, Bill Keller remembers spending a day observing Mandela during his presidency in the mid-90s. He recalls his surprise when Mandela sided with the wealthy owner of a chain of grocery stores over the striking workers at his stores. He paints a picture of a “less saintly” Nelson Mandela,
Another thing that stays with me from that day is that Mandela could be mean. He is celebrated, rightly so, for the strategic forgiveness that enabled him to bargain with his erstwhile tormentors and even include them, for an interim period, in his cabinet.
But to include them did not mean to love them. On my day of watching, there were flashes of entirely human rancor, especially in his acerbic asides about his predecessor and partner in history, F. W. de Klerk, who had become a deputy in the unity government. Mandela took several opportunities to portray de Klerk as a small-minded conniver… With unmistakable relish, Mandela disclosed that he had just stripped de Klerk of his authority overseeing administration of the intelligence service.
Keller presents forgiveness as an act of carefully crafted statesmanship. Elsewhere, Ron Krabill opines that Mandela’s commitment to forgiveness was similarly “strategic.”
Media coverage of his death has focused heavily on Mandela’s ability to forgive those who sentenced him to prison for 27 years for his work against apartheid and his pursuit of reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. But forgiveness is part of, not an exception to, his identity as a revolutionary… Mandela supported reconciliation rather than retribution because he believed it offered the best way forward for the revolution…
We might recall that Mandela’s fiercest critics included some of his closest political allies, his comrades. They wished he would seize the property and wealth that South African whites had taken during Apartheid years and redistribute it among those from whom it had been taken. Mandela rejected this approach. He chose a path whose goal was allowing people to live together. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote of South Africa’s path forward,
Mandela’s administration would later decide against holding criminal trials for former members of the apartheid government for many practical reasons. [One of those reasons was that they knew that] after the trials, everyone would still have to live with each other. When we recognize this – that we have to live with each other, or we either have to live with each other or withdraw from the human family, forgiveness seems possible.
This quote is nothing if not practical. And that, I suppose, is the point that those articles I cited make. Mandela’s acts and gestures of forgiveness helped to make progress towards a practical outcome: a more peaceful country, a more stable nation.
So, what might we learn, what might we take away, from such extreme examples of forgiveness? When I look at Mandela, I feel like I’m watching a champion marathon runner when I myself am barely learning to crawl. The good news for us is that most of us will never be put in a situation where we are asked to forgive a genocide that we are forced to live through. We’ll never be asked to forgive our captors after three decades of wrongful imprisonment. There but for the grace of God go I.
But while it is unlikely that we will be challenged to practice forgiveness in its most extreme forms, our lives – by virtue of us being human and living with other humans – will present us with opportunities to forgive others and to ask for forgiveness. That others can run marathons does not make it any easier for us to jog around the block. It just proves it’s possible. It just proves it’s possible.
About a decade ago I read a book about forgiveness in South Africa. The book, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, was written by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist who worked with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The book is about her visits to Eugene de Kock, who had been the commanding officer of South Africa’s national police and had directed kidnapping, murder, and torture hundreds of times over, and who was sentenced to a 212 year prison sentence for his crimes against humanity. In this book, the author struggles over what it would mean to forgive Eugene de Kock. She comes face to face with his humanity. She even considers whether his sentence should be lessened and whether he should be freed.
In Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s book we also meet Peter and Linda Biehl. In the late days of apartheid, their daughter, Amy, a college student at Stanford, found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time in South Africa and was murdered by two South African youth. The parents, Peter and Linda, came to South Africa and took on the task of transforming the boys, no older than Amy, who had murdered her, from killers to constructive members of society. They took on their daughter’s killers as their own children, educating them, and turning tragedy into redemption.
What, indeed, are the limits of forgiveness?
We may not be asked in our lifetime to run marathons of forgiveness, to climb the tallest mountains of forgiveness, or to swim the widest seas of forgiveness. In our lifetime we will be given the opportunity to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. Let us do what we can to take a first step, and then to take one more step.