Rebel with a cause

VOX PS by Séan Mullan

An old man in Africa breathes his last breath and the world stands still. At 95, his death is no surprise but we mourn as though it should never have happened. His memorial event is like a general assembly of the United Nations except that political enemies shake hands or embrace in shared loss.

What was it about this man, who spent the best years of his life in jail, that captured the world’s affections? What did we see that drew us to him? And how do we best remember him?

Mandela refused to either surrender or retaliate against his enemy. 

Mandela was a rebel. He rebelled against the evil of apartheid. He rebelled against the notion that one race was intrinsically inferior to another. And then, after years of captive waiting, having seen victory for his cause, he rebelled against the notion that the victor keeps the spoils for himself.

Nelson Mandela.jpg

In South Africa’s first all-race election in 1994, Mandela’s party won over 60% of the vote, three times the vote of the next largest party. With all that power in his hands Mandela, the rebel, chose to share it with his foes, including his oppressors. Both those who had kept him in prison and those who now threatened his political power were given seats at the cabinet table.

 Another reminder of oppression?

In 1995, one year into Mandela’s presidency, South Africa hosted the Rugby Word Cup. Rugby, the game of the white South African, had embodied their perceived supremacy. The Springboks, as they were known, had been the pride and joy of white South Africa but for black South Africans they were just one more reminder of the era of oppression.

After a tough tournament the host team reached the final. But even on home soil no one gave them a chance against the undefeated and seemingly undefeatable New Zealand team. The Springboks seemed destined for the runner-up spot.

Reconciliation always requires that someone pay the price.

Enter the rebel. Mandela arrived at the game wearing a Springboks shirt, the uniform of his old enemy. And suddenly everything seemed possible, Francois Pienaar, the South African captain later said that after Mandela visited their dressing room with the Springbok emblem “over his heart” the whole team would have gone through walls for him.

And they did. In a close match the teams were level at full time but after extra time it was the Springboks who were three points ahead. And that little old African rebel, already more than a decade past retirement age, stood beside Pienaar and punched the air in triumph, celebrating the victory of those who should have been his enemies as though he himself had won it… and perhaps he had.

He paid the price himself

Mandela refused to either surrender or retaliate against his enemy. Instead, by absorbing into himself the evil the enemy had done, he changed the whole ball game. By refusing to let the opponent’s deeds or attitudes set the agenda, he sowed the seed of reconciliation. Reconciliation always requires that someone pay the price. Mandela chose to pay that price himself rather than forcing the opponent to pay. A rebel indeed.

He wasn’t the first rebel to do this. The Jesus story, set out in the four gospels, pictures a rebel who loves his opponent and willingly pays, in his own suffering, the price of being reconciled with them. Then he throws out a general invitation to join the rebellion.

The Mandela story leaves us with a profound challenge to our understanding of how life works. Even more so the Jesus story. But praising the rebels is no substitute for joining the rebellion.