Lessons from Mandela - 19th December 2013

Steve Miller

I didn’t get to meet Nelson Mandela.  The scene was set.  Mandela was on his first overseas visit since his release – to London in 1990.  A hundred or so Anti-Apartheid Movement activists had been invited to a meeting with him.  I arrived early to get a front row seat – and had my camera with me for the historical shot.  But, he never turned up.  Exhausted by the rest of his schedule he returned to his hotel and Winnie came instead.  Not exactly what we were hoping for.  Of course, like the rest of the world, I watched when he returned a couple of months later for the tribute concert at Wembley and graced the stage as he was to grace the world stage for another 23 years.  And I was delighted to be part of the crowd in Trafalgar Square when he launched the ‘MakePovertyHistory’ campaign in 2005.

 Mercy Ships)

So, clearly, I can’t say that I know Nelson Mandela.  But, for many of us, when a great public figure dies, the person we grieve becomes a symbol – a lens through which we see the world, a platform for our emotional connection to ourselves and the world we see, and, yes, an icon, through which we can reach for greater heights through the image of a great person. In the last couple of weeks probably thousands of columns and millions of social media snippets have been published.  Like others, this will be personal, touching on my connection with Nelson Mandela’s passing – and my lens will mostly be about the Nelson Mandela the political activist.  And it will be fragmented because memory and emotion are often fragmented.

A personal story: looking back, the anti-apartheid struggle has also been a part of my life, from the first days of awareness as a teenager in 1969 and 70, to the creation of Jews Against Apartheid in 1985 and our memorable Passover Seders for Freedom on the steps of the South African embassy.  While today all kinds of social activism are pretty central to Jewish life, it was anti-apartheid that really brought social issues into the heart of the British Jewish community.  And today, when we remember Nelson Mandela, I also remember with fondness two other inspirational figures – Archbishop Trevor Huddleston who attended nearly all of our seders, and Denis Goldberg – still active – who quietly inspired us from his role at the ANC London office.

Add into this the changing inter-faith landscape - for a number of years I sat on the multi-faith committee of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and without the benefit of the AAM archive I seem to recall that these incredibly dedicated groups were barely multi-faith except in name.  In fact these groups seemed to comprise about a dozen Christians - and me!  How the multi-faith and interfaith landscape has changed since the eighties – and all for the better.  The minority religious traditions in the UK have taken their rightful place in the public arena – in fact it is hard to imagine public life without them.  Yes, this kind of public life can be controversial, and I am sure that there are many members of our communities who’d just like a quiet life out of the public eye.  But my understanding of most religious traditions is that, while a quiet life might be acceptable to some, it does not fully reflect their deepest values. Here are my reflections on the life and legacy of Mandela:

Inspirational leadership Howard Gardner tells us that, “Leaders achieve their effectiveness chiefly through the stories they relate” and he goes on to emphasise how important it is that the leader models in their own life the values and ideas which they are expressing publicly.  Effective leaders connect with us on an emotional level. When I first heard the news of Mandela’s death, I went straight to my bookshelves and my library of pamphlets and books from the ‘80s, the most well-thumbed of which is “The Struggle is My Life” a collection of Mandela’s writings and speeches.  (Many collected on the ANC website.)  The words still jump off the pages with a passion and vibrancy undimmed by time.  Rather than read the biographies, even Mandela’s own autobiography I would urge anyone to read the words he spoke at the height of the struggle.  It is hard for anyone in the public eye to escape the scrutiny of those seeking to bring them down but Nelson Mandela, certainly no saint, seemed able to bring his personal integrity to all situations at all stages of his life.

Organisational discipline. But Mandela, despite what some would have us believe, was never a one person operation.  Throughout his life he emphasised that he was a loyal member of the ANC, that any authority he may have had derived only from that organisation, and that he was absolutely subject to the ANC’s organisational discipline.  In faith communities, as well as in political struggles, we are well aware of the power of the inspirational or charismatic individual.  We know that such individuals can be a huge force for change – but we also know that it brings with it dangers and pitfalls.  And I’ve also been reflecting on the famous quote attributed to Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”  It’s not the same thing as an inspirational individual but, in the same way, it does rather undermine the idea of the importance of institutions.  For a different perspective I quite like this graphic unpacking of Meads ‘quote’.  For myself, I think large institutions can still play a hugely important role in our increasingly individualistic society.

Transformational change. 1989-1994 was an incredible time in history.  Whatever one’s political views the incontrovertible facts are that changes took place in Europe and South Africa that we never really imagined could happen.  Honestly, even many of us in the Anti Apartheid Movement did not really believe that this would happen when it did. It begs the question of how these changes happened.  And it also demands of us to ask questions about what real change we want to see in the world or  whether we are willing to ‘just settle’ for less.  For those of us who believe that transformational change is required to create a permanently just and equitable society, we need to think about the structures and systems that perpetuate inequalities.  If we don’t believe in violent revolution then what techniques of change do we believe in?  Is community development or incremental change sufficient?  Following the Margaret Mead theme here is one view of how social change happens

The next generation. Just as I never actually met Nelson Mandela, I never thought I would go to South Africa.  But, a few years ago I was invited to train Jewish volunteers in South Africa as part of the wonderful Limmud organisation.  In between teaching sessions in three cities I was able to take a little time off to visit some special places – none more special than the Hector Pieterson Museum remembering the Soweto Uprising. The story of that tragic day in June 1976 was told simply and clearly; but what most moved me was the large number of school groups visiting the Museum.  I eavesdropped on several of these groups, particularly the young students of 8, 9, 10 years old, as their young teachers and the museum educators explained this most poignant of stories with grace and understanding.  The lessons of history are often sombre but we ignore them at our peril.  It is a huge task ahead of the young generation to continue the work of building a new South Africa but it can only happen if it is rooted in history.

Reconciliation? In the end who can lead us to permanent change?  The ideological activist whose righteous anger drives change forward? Or the pragmatist who knows that only by weaving their way through the complexities of lived experience can we actually create lasting change? Do we have to compromise to move forward?  Do we make accommodations with our entrenched foes as the ANC leadership did in the end – and does forgiveness ‘trump’ all other long-term strategies.  I don’t know the answer to this.  I do know that my other transformative visit in South Africa was to Robben Island.  It is both a historical witness to the evils of apartheid, and also a nature reserve where you can watch penguins in all of their sublime, silly glory.  Somehow the conjunction works.  Visitors to the prison complex are guided by former inmates, who patiently answer all manner of questions, and embody in their lives the Robben Island slogan, “the triumph of the human spirit”.  As activists rooted in our diverse religious traditions, one of the values we share is an understanding of the place of the spirit – however interpreted – in our lives.

(Photo credit: Mercy Ships under Creative Commons licence)