Nelson Mandela: A Prophet for the Twenty-first Century
Mac Maharaj in Mandela: The Authorized Portrait reflects on the life of Nelson Mandela, whom he states is an icon in Africa, in the developing world, and also in the developed world. Maharaj states that Mandela “has truly become humankind’s hope for the future at a time when politics has become a dirty word, stripped of all morality and Machiavellian to its roots.”
I agree with that portrayal, and as I reflect on Mandela the icon, the man of faith – a faith in the ultimate goodness in all men and women, I see Mandela, the prophet. I see Mandela as much of a prophet as any in the Bible. I see him as a prophet like Habakkuk. Habakkuk is a prophet we don’t know as well as some others, but a prophet nonetheless.
Perhaps Mandela’s life didn’t start out as a prophet, but became one, as he suffered trials, watched his brothers and sisters who believed in justice suffer and die for the sake of what was right and just; baked in the hot sun breaking rocks on Robben Island; and contracted tuberculosis while in prison.
I might not have thought of him as a prophet when he was a younger man, leading the African National Congress through its tumultuous periods, because at times he was a very angry man. Perhaps Mandela was a man who like Habakkuk questioned God, asking God: Why? Habakkuk implores God by saying: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? Or cry to you Violence! and you will not save.” Mandela could have uttered those same words because like Habakkuk and others Mandela suffered, endured and is now, finally, triumphant.
Mandela’s life has made an impact on so many of the world’s people. When he transitions into life with the ancestors – when he takes his well-deserved long sleep into that place where there are no more worries – his life will have mattered because his life has been an inspiration for all people who seek justice. If he goes to a place where the ancestors hover over the earth, he may meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who reminded us in another era of what struggle and suffering is. Mandela, too, has worked for a peaceful world where there is an absence of war and the presence of peace through justice for all people.
The world is better because Mandela lived in it. Remember that God answered Habakkuk by helping him to be patient and to know that his sacrifice would be worth it in the end. God also answered Mandela by giving him the stamina and patience to endure 26 years of torturous prison. Knowing his sacrifice and his power to endure for the sake of truth keeps me believing that right will indeed triumph over might in the long run.
When it is Mandela’s time to leave this physical body, I will remember his life and his sacrifices will not have been in vain. He is a prophet for this time.
Ruby Sprott, Ed.D. is a former professor of education at the State University of New York’s College at Old Westbury, and current chair of the Mission and Social Justice Commission of The Riverside Church in New York City. Active during the anti-apartheid movement, in the 1990s Dr. Sprott convened Riverside’s South Africa Initiative, which supported a trauma counseling center in a township near Johannesburg. She continues to support the movement for economic and social justice in South Africa through numerous international organizations, including Shared Interest and the Institute for Healing of Memories.
[Mandela “Resilience” artwork by taryn_nefdt/ Flickr.com/ Creative Commons license.]