As Nelson Mandela celebrates his 90th birthday, Gilbert Mardai SJ pays tribute to this ‘apostle of justice’ whose example of courage, forgiveness and patience on his ‘long walk to freedom’ are an inspiration to Christians and to all who yearn for a fairer and more human world.
On 18 July 1918, Africa and the world were blessed with the birth of Rolihlahla in a tiny village on the banks of the Mbashe River in province of Transkei. The name Rolihlahla in Xhosa means ‘pulling the branch of a tree’, but its colloquial meaning more accurately would be ‘troublemaker’. Didn’t Shakespeare write, ‘What’s in a name?’ And how true this was for Rolihlahla! To the apartheid regime of South Africa in the 1950s and early 1960s, Rolihlahla was indeed a troublemaker. So much was the ‘trouble’ he made for justice that at the mere mentioning of his name conflicting emotions churned inside people like President P.W. Botha. To silence him, he was arrested and put in jail. This measure had little or no effect because the world spoke out against apartheid and for the freedom of this man and his fellow prisoners.
Who would have thought that Rolihlahla was going to be the person so well known today by young and old alike, rich and poor, oppressed and free, sick and healthy? Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – what an extraordinary human being! The whole world is celebrating the life of a man who has given all his life – 90 years – to fight for justice. He should be called the apostle of justice. For the cause of justice he was ready to die rather than turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by the apartheid regime in South Africa. He was imprisoned on Robben Island for twenty-seven and a half years. Instead of seeing these years as a time when all his hopes were shattered for ever, he saw them as his ‘long walk to freedom’.
Mandela’s name in Robben Island was 46664 – the 466th prisoner in 1964. But the world did not reduce his identity to a mere number; he was Mandela, Nelson Mandela. We celebrate, this year, the 90thbirthday of an extraordinary man, an apostle of justice. Who would have wanted to spend more time in a prison such as Robben Island after twenty-seven and a half years? And yet, when F.W. de Klerk announced to Mandela on 9 February 1990 that he was going to release him from prison the following day, Mandela preferred to have a week’s notice. He needed time to notify his people of his release, and he wanted to be released with dignity, not in a rush. He writes, ‘After waiting twenty-seven years, I could certainly wait seven days.’ What is more extraordinary is his desire ‘to be able to say good-bye to the guards and warders who had looked after [him] and [he] asked that they and their families wait for [him] at the front gate, where [he] would be able to thank them individually.’ He wanted to thank the guards and warders! Indeed, ten thousand days in prison formed an apostle of justice, for with justice there is respect, total respect, for the dignity of all human beings.
A new life was just beginning. As soon as he walked out of the gates, he was met by a roaring crowd. Mandela writes,