Nelson Mandela and Stand My Ground
When I think of a life lesson that I have learned from Madiba or because of his life, while it seems strange to say it now, when I think of something that has shaped my essence in the public arena, it would be to “stand my ground.” Standing one’s ground has become sinister and ugly, but pre-George Zimmerman and the spate of shoot-first-ask-second state laws, standing one’s ground meant holding firm to one’s principles even in the face of great adversity and danger.
Stories abound about Nelson Mandela’s life while on Robben Island. One favorite for me has to do with his writing to his family. Nelson Mandela wrote in excess of 30 consecutive letters in one stretch to his family. Each letter was returned, stamped “Denied.” He persisted in writing, until one day, one letter wasn’t returned and it actually got delivered. At that very basic level, he stood his ground and never stopped writing until his oppressors finally relented.
We didn’t learn the letter story until after his freedom, but the story that was playing out in public view was the work of the Black Sash. The women of the Black Sash, an interfaith group of privileged white women, stood silently on street corners in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and around the Republic of South Africa; they were not only seeking the release of Mr. Mandela, but stood their ground and used their collective power to work toward the elimination of pass laws, the overthrow of the apartheid system, and to expose the societal ills and injustices wrought by apartheid. For years, they stood and stood and stood. They stood their ground. Upon his release from prison, Mr. Mandela honored the women of the Black Sash for their standing witness to the elimination of oppression and injustice. Standing one’s ground can bring change!
It is the nexus of the Mandela-Black Sash story that has informed and inspired me. Madiba’s carriage, once tall and erect, was a result of standing his ground with honor in the face of difficult challenges when just the hint of temptation to take the easy way out by compromising a principle, could have undermined the freedom movement. The Black Sash women, tall and erect, faced down taunts and physical harm by standing their ground for righteous principles. Together they achieved perfect complementarity.
Some of my earliest work with the Episcopal Church was fraught with challenges. The Shell Oil boycott was one such episode in the life of the church’s General Convention and the ensuing triennium. [Ed.: The U.S. Episcopal Church holds a major national convention every three years, called the General Convention. The interim period between conventions is known as the “triennium.”] The choice was to back off to prevent funding cuts by certain dioceses that could do serious harm to the budget or to stand our ground to make a witness in support of our South African brothers and sisters who called for the boycott. The resolution calling for the Shell Oil boycott passed.
We stood our ground, and like the women of the Black Sash who were abused for the positions they took, we too were abused in a more genteel episcopal way, but it was abuse nevertheless. If we had not followed the example set by Nelson Mandela from his cell on Robben Island by persisting and standing firm on the ground, the earth under our feet would always be shifting sand. Thank you for this life lesson.
On an extremely personal note, I was on a visit to Cape Town approximately one month after Mr. Mandela’s release from prison. On his first night of freedom, the Mandelas stayed in the guest apartment at Bishopscourt – Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s arch-episcopal residence. On my visit, I too stayed in the very same guest apartment. On the first night there, I circled the bed wondering if HE had slept on this side or that. I finally chose one side only to try the next, and then the other, and back and forth until morning arrived. At one point I was practically levitating over the bed thinking what could I gain by osmosis. I could go on and on about my kitchen experience, lounge rambling, and then there’s the loo – but I think I should stop now. Being on the grounds of Bishopscourt and visiting the Tutus was always a great honor, but staying in and exploring the space occupied by the Mandelas on his first night of freedom was too magical for words!
Canon Diane M. Porter has served in senior executive positions in governmental, corporate, and nonprofit organizations, and in each of those capacities worked to strengthen religious and political opposition to the apartheid regime. Diane’s leadership positions included as chief of staff to Congressman Edolphus Towns, director of programs at The Episcopal Church, and chief executive officer of National Training Laboratories, Inc.
[Women of the Black Sash photo courtesy of “An Illustrated Dictionary of South African HIstory.”]