Nelson Mandela, R.I.P.

What’s it like to be on the wrong side of history? Ask me. I know.

By now, if you care anything about history and how it is made, you have seen or read plenty of stirring tributes to the incredible man known to us as Nelson Mandela, son of a Xhosa chief, who was baptized a Methodist, given his familiar English first name, then began his long journey to destroy the fascism of apartheid, what President Obama called “one of history’s foulest evils,” and what President Reagan labeled “a malevolent and archaic system totally alien to our ideals.” By doing so, by radically changing South Africa, this amazing freedom fighter, who remained on young mandelaour government’s terrorist watch list until 2008, did indeed, as President Clinton said, make the entire world a better place.

When I was in college in 1986, there was quite a debate raging about what our policy should be toward South Africa, toward apartheid. President Reagan and many conservatives opposed strong sanctions against the white fascist government, Reagan calling those sanctions “economic warfare.” I was among those conservatives who opposed tough sanctions, who opposed what became the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. As I have written elsewhere, in the fall of 1986 I debated a college teacher over the issue of sanctions. I defended what was then called “constructive engagement,” an incremental approach that sought not to isolate and punish the white government in South Africa, but to softly encourage it to end the apartheid regime. In my debate, I even borrowed the term “economic warfare” to describe the sanctions proposed by mostly Democrats.

Like other conservatives, I was less concerned about the evil of apartheid than I was about South Africa falling into the hands of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was a useful excuse for right-wingers like me to essentially ignore the awful and ongoing brutality of state-sponsored terrorism, executed by white fascists in Pretoria against the country’s pigmented majority. I criticized “Western moralizing” and tried to make the case that South Africa was valuable to our national security interests because it held large reserves of strategic minerals. I quoted a retired Chief of Air Force Intelligence who warned,

within the next five years, it will be necessary for the United States to place several divisions into South Africa to recapture access to and to prevent Soviet-Marxist control of, the strategic materials that now come from that country. We’re going to have to secure and take by force of arms. That’s how serious the South Africa matter is.

I also said during that debate that,

even if blacks should prevail and come to power, it would be because of Soviet-supplied weaponry; and it is a good bet that a Soviet-backed, Marxist government would be established, leaving the United States in the unenviable position of having to deal with our enemies to obtain vital strategic materials…

It turned out that the emergence of a Soviet-backed, Marxist government was not a good bet. It turned out the bet should have been on Nelson Mandela. And thus it turned out that I, and so many conservatives, were on the wrong side of history, even if some of them, like Dick Cheney, have had a hard time admitting it. Ronald Reagan vetoed that sanctions law in 1986 and his veto was promptly, and historically, overridden. By then, enough congressional Republicans could see that history would not be kind to those who ostensibly sided with the oppressors.

And it should be noted here that the push for sanctions, the push from the outside against the fascism of apartheid, was largely a push made by those on the left, both here and abroad, those whose vision was not darkened by images of potential Soviet aggression or clouded by pleas to go slow until the fascists came to their senses.

The left was right about sanctions. The left was right to aggressively oppose what was going on in South Africa both before and during Nelson Mandela’s 27 years of imprisonment. But I don’t believe anyone could have anticipated the greatness inside the man so honored today, a man who had once endorsed violence against the fascists but, after he became the first democratically-elected president in the country’s history, turned to peace and reconciliation and thus avoided the civil war that so many had predicted.

Finally, I will leave you with a lengthy excerpt from a book I read in 2003, after I had left conservatism and while I was still struggling with leaving evangelical Christianity. The book, Rumors of Another World, was written by the famous evangelical author, Philip Yancey. No matter what your religious beliefs are, no matter if like me you have consciously left the confines of a confining evangelicalism, I would ask you to read the following as a way of paying your respects to Nelson Mandela, whose strong Christian faith no doubt greatly shaped his amazing life, a life that we both mourn and celebrate today:

Grace is irrational, unfair, unjust, and only makes sense if I believe in another world governed by a merciful God who always offers another chance. “Amazing Grace,” a rare hymn that in recent times climbed the charts of popular music, holds out the promise that God judges people not for what they have been but what they could be, not by their past but by their future. John Newton, a gruff and bawdy slave trader, “a wretch like me,” wrote that hymn after being transformed by the power of amazing grace.

When the world sees grace in action, it falls silent. Nelson Mandela taught the world a lesson in grace when, after emerging from prison after twenty-seven years and being elected president of South Africa, he asked his jailer to join him on the inauguration platform. He then appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head an official government panel with a daunting name, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela sought to defuse the natural pattern of revenge that he had seen in so many countries where one oppressed race or tribe took control from another.

For the next two-and-a-half years, South Africans listened to reports of atrocities coming out of the TRC hearings. The rules were simple: if a white policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed his crime, and fully acknowledged his guilt, he could not be tried and punished for that crime. Hard-liners grumbled about the obvious injustice of letting criminals go free, but Mandela insisted that the country needed healing even more than it needed justice.

At one hearing, a policeman named van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an eighteen-year-old boy and burned the body, turning it on the fire like a piece of barbecue meat in order to destroy the evidence. Eight years later van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. The wife was forced to watch as policemen bound her husband on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body, and ignited it.

The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. “What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?” the judge asked. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. His head down, the policeman nodded agreement.

Then she added a further request. “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.”

Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing “Amazing Grace” as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, overwhelmed.

Justice was not done in South Africa that day, nor in the entire country during months of agonizing procedures by the TRC. Something beyond justice took place. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” said Paul. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu understood that when evil is done, one response alone can overcome the evil. Revenge perpetuates the evil. Justice punishes it. Evil is overcome by good only if the injured party absorbs it, refusing to allow it to go any further. And that is the pattern of otherworldly grace that Jesus showed in his life and death.




  1. This is a particularly wonderful and eloquent post! One of Graham’s very best! It zeroes in on the particular greatness of Mandela in ultimately rejecting violence and replacing it with forgiveness–a common enough idea but rarely seen among even the greatest statesmen.


  2. On this day of many eulogies and memories expressed about Nelson Mandela, this post is the best I’ve experienced in explaining all the fuss. It is a rare thing to see how Jesus’ philosophy of “turn the other cheek” actually worked, and on a national scale at that. Truly remarkable. I would have predicted that it would not work. Here at home our two political parties cannot even reconcile differences over healthcare, even though the law in question was conceived by the one that now opposes it. The hatred is so bitter, I have to wonder if even a Mandela of our own could fix it.


  3. ansonburlingame

     /  December 7, 2013

    In 1996 Samuel Huntington published a book “The Clash of Civilizations” and proposed a new basis for gobal geopolitics, the interactions of civilizations, not just nations as such. Both conservatives and progressives have applauded that somewhat obscure but still iconic theme to consider.

    In terms of “world history”, subsaharan Africa was unknown to both western and oriential historians. Once European sea power began to emerge in the 1600’s (or so) the coastlines of Africa, all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope began to emerge on world maps. But the interior of that land mass was still a “black hole”. That only applied to subsaharan Africa however. Long before those times first Egyptians and then Arabs had controlled North Africa with occassional sories from Eupropean Powers (Rome and even Greek (Macadonian) and later the crusades..

    From the early 1600’s up to the middle of the 20th Century (mid 1900’s) subsaharan Africa was a history of European colonilization. The vast wealth of the British Empire was sustained for several centuries right out of the ground of subsaharan Africa, gold and diamonds in Rhodesia being a principle mainstay of such wealth. Read that history if you will to catch just a glimmer of attempts to bring “western civilization” to vast areas of tribal conflict. Compare that titantic struggle to our own “civilization” of North America, wresting control of a continent from tribal interactions on a global scale.

    Huntington goes to great length to describe his view of “civilization” and not let it get mired in “culture”, race, ethnicity or even religion. He places civilization above those “smaller” identifications of large numbers of humans. It is a difficult distinction to understand, particularly in America where race still divides so many of us, within our own borders and beyond as well.

    But try to consider a world of distinct “civilizations”. “Western civilization” (Europe and North America), Oriential civilization centered around China (Huntington considers Japan as a distinctly different from China form of civilization), Semitic civilization (the birthplace of both Islam and Christianity), Latin America and then “Africa” , specifically subsaharan Africa or “black Africa”.

    Then take a more focused view of just subsaharan Africa, South Africa, Zimabwe, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Rawanda and the list goes on. Consider the first form of warfare that achieved “freedom” in subsaharan Africa, the Mau Mau Revolution in Kenya. Later the overthrow of white settlers came to pass in “Rhodesia” and surrounding areas and then, finally, South Africa as we know it today. Read that history and shutter to imagine living in that hell, black or white being beside the point. And the “hell” still continues, in my view, as a “new civilization” emerges on the map of the world, a different and and still very much evolving civilization of tribes in subsaharan Africa creating it’s own niche in the larger world.

    Care to consider a huge “what if”? Imagine the North American indian civilization ultimately “winning”, European colonies were cast aside in America, and the tribal indian civilization of old had “won”.

    I make no attempt to argue whether the world would be better or worse had that happened. I only point out that it would be decidely different, then and now.



  4. Nice post.


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