How a conservative South African Christian came to love Nelson Mandela

9 Dec

Powerful firsthand account from Clint Archer (now South African baptist pastor):

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) died on Thursday, at 95 years old. Today the world will talk of how his politics molded history. There will be documentaries about his presidential legacy and movies telling his remarkable story. But I doubt any of that will capture the impact he had on people like me. I was a racist and a detractor. I was ignorant and brainwashed. I was a pessimist and a cynic. But Mandela changed my mind. B&W Nelson Mandela



I grew up in the dystopia of Apartheid. As an English speaking White child in the 1980’s I had no idea that the country I lived in was not a democracy—my parents voted, and one day I would too.


 I was vaguely aware of banned books, censorship, and protest poetry, but none of that affected my life. I hadn’t an inkling that Whites were a minority, and that Blacks outnumbered us nine-to-one. I lived in a city, which meant that Blacks were only allowed there temporarily and if they had permission papers. They were there to do the dirty jobs. At night they slunk back to their distant and disgusting shanty towns. It never occurred to me that those hodgepodge shacks, built from our rubbish, housed 30 million real people.


 I harbored no antipathy toward the Blacks who mowed our lawn and cleaned our home. They were good-humored and friendly folks. They were compliant and submissive, calling my dad Boss, my mom Madam, and I was Kleinbaas (little-boss). We were taught to respect them. When our full time domestic servant—“the maid”—babysat me, she was in charge and was to be respected. I once met with a memorable lesson from Dad’s belt when I accused the lady of stealing sugar. (As it turned out, it was a different pilferer I had overheard my mother complaining about.)


 I appreciated the Blacks I knew. But I also knew about the others.


The other Blacks—the Terrorists—were the ones to fear. I learned about them from the news and elementary school history lessons. They lived in the bush, were trained in Angola by Soviet Communists, and were responsible for the paranoia woven into our lives. They were the reason we practiced military drills in school and why every male over eighteen was drafted into the army. My parents owned a store in central Pretoria. My mom was there alone the weekend my dad took us hiking, when the Terrorists bombed the nearby Navy admin headquarters. She was showered in shards of window glass, but thankfully escaped the casualty statistics that day. 


 Mandela and boy On my third grade classroom wall was a poster with plastic models of various limpet mines, letter bombs, grenades, and other devices the Terrorists used, so we could report any we saw in malls or stadiums. Our school rehearsed bomb drills and escape evacuation protocols; some were in response to actual threats, others just a welcome escape from math class. We saw sniffer dogs patrol occasionally, and our headmaster had code words that, if used over the PA system, meant the following instructions were being issued under duress.




Fear of the Terrorists was a way of life. Welcome to Africa. But if you needed a person to blame, his name was Nelson Mandela. The press dubbed him the Black Pimpernel; his Xhosa name, Rolihlahla means “trouble maker.” How prophetic. Mandela haunted our collective consciousness. He was the Boogie Man. He was leader of the fearsome Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC (African National Congress). He pleaded guilty to 156 acts of violence and was now a political prisoner on Robben Island. The bombings were ANC retaliation for Mandela’s incarceration. I asked my teacher why they didn’t just release Mandela so that the fighting would stop? My naïveté irked her: “To let a man like that free is to untie a dog you’ve been teasing. He won’t slink away. He’ll come get you.”


 That made sense. Maybe they shouldn’t have locked him up to begin with, but now that he’d been stewing in rage and plotting revenge, they had better keep him in or it could get all Count of Monte Cristo on us. B&W Mandela


 It astonished me to learn that the reason South Africa was banned from the Olympics, and that the USA was in favor of economic sanctions, and that we were denied visas to visit Disneyland, was all because Mandela was in jail. I thought the world had gone crazy. Didn’t they know that a fiend like that belonged behind bars? Were they really falling for Bishop Tutu’s cockamamie side of the story? Hello everybody, of course Tutu wants him free, Tutu’s Black!


 I was in high school when I first heard Mandela’s name mentioned as a victim. I was transitioning out of the embarrassing Roxette pop music stage of life into the more sophisticated alternative rock phase. Just like everyone else in the world, my favorite band was U2. It was Bono’s piercing impromptu monologue on the Rattle and Hum CD that chimed a resonance in my conscience that would eventually quake my parochial world.

Read the rest here

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