20 December 2009

"Invictus" and Mandela

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison at the hands of a white regime that oppressed blacks and maintained a system of apartheid in order to maintain power. How he endured what he did is beyond my comprehension. The Victorian poet Ernest Henley wrote "Invictus" in 1875 while laying in a hospital bed suffering from tuberculosis of the bone, a condition that ultimately meant amputation. Mandela recounts that the poem provided him inspiration while in prison, an amazing example of the power of words:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Source: http://www.bartleby.com/103/7.html

My wife and I recently saw the film "Invictus" which recounts the story of Nelson Mandela's relationship with the South African Springboks Rugby Team in the middle 1990s and their victory in the World Cup Tournament in 1995 over the heavily favored team from New Zealand. Certainly more than a "feel good" sports movie, the film carries a stirring message of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. Mandela's story of 27 years in prison is amazing to say the least.

I first became aware of Mandela during my college years in the 1970s. At that time the story of South African apartheid was hot and we explored the particulars in various classes I was taking related to international studies and African studies. Mandela was criticized during his years as President for focusing too heavily on the reconciliation issue and not enough on the problems that continued to plague the black majority in South Africa. Whatever his political legacy may be, I left the film overwhelmed by his ability to "love those that had persecuted him," and his willingness to work for reconciliation.

Though Mandela's religion is not addressed in the film, it is evident that he operated from a spiritual position. Here is an excerpt of a speech he gave in 1999 at the Parliament of World Religions meeting in Capetown where he addressed this issue:

"In our country, my generation is the product of religious education. We grew up at a time when the government of this country owed its duty only to whites, a minority of less than fifteen percent. They took no interest whatsoever in our education. It was religious institutions, whether Christian, Moslem, Hindu, or Jewish, in the context of our country; they are the people who bought land, who built schools, who employed teachers and paid them. Without church, without religious institutions, I would never have been here today. It was for that reason, that when I was ready to go to the United States on the first of this month, an engagement which had been arranged for quite some time, when my comrade, Ibrahim, told me about this occasion, I said: I will change my own itinerary, so I will have the opportunity of appearing here. But I must also add, that I appreciate the importance of religion. Apart from the background I have given you, you have to have been in a South African jail under apartheid, where you can see a cruelty of human beings to others in a naked form. But it was again religious institutions, Hindus, Moslems, leaders of the Jewish faith, Christians, it was them who gave us the hope that one day, we would come out, we would return. And in prison, the religious institutions, raised funds for our children, who were arrested in thousands and thrown into jail, and many of them one day left prison at a high level of education, because of this support we got from religious institutions. And that is why we so respect religious institutions. And we try as much as we can to read the literature, which outlines the fundamental principles of human behaviour. And, like the Bhagadgita, the Qur'an, the Bible, and other important religious documents. And I say this, so you should understand, that the propaganda that has been made for example about the liberation movement is completely untrue. Because religion was one of the motivating factors in everything that we did."

Source: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/articles/mandela/index.html

The story of Mandela continues in 2009. Along with several other notable leaders (among them Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu, and Jimmy Carter), he helped form "The Elders" in July of 2007. In a dedicatory ceremony, he said this:

"The Elders can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes. They will reach out to those who most need their help. They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair."

Source: http://www.theelders.org/

The Clint Eastwood film shines a light on Mandela's story, something the world needs in 2009. As one who teaches in a racially mixed community, I was struck by the powerful witness he offers. There are lessons there for all of us.

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