It's several years since my husband bought himself this book, the autobiography of the Nobel prizewinning African leader Nelson Mandela, but this January I finally got round to reading it. Its a hefty tome, 656 pages, but how else do you cover a life that, at time of publication, spanned seven decades. Before becoming the first black President of the Republic of South Africa, Mandela spent 27 years as a political prisoner, much of it on isolated Robben Island off the south coast of his native South Africa; that much I knew. What I didn't know - and now have a deep appreciation and respect for - was Mandela's backgound as a member of a royal Thembu household, as a law student working for human rights in townships like Soweto, as a leader in the pan-racial ANC, and as a change facilitator in the emergence of a democratic regime in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela is a key figure in the compelling story of the defeat of apartheid, that enshrinement in law of a policy of separation and discrimination by race in the multicultural milieu of twentieth century South Africa. In New Zealand, we wrestled with these issues in the protest march and on the rugby field, but in Africa they were matters of oppression and freedom, even life and death. As president of the African National Congress, Mandela led South Africa's anti-apartheid movement in the long fight for racial equality. In the sixties, in an infamous politically-motivated trial, he and other revolutionary leaders were convicted of the capital offence of sabotage, and only narrowly avoided hanging due to pressure from the international human rights community. In 1962 he was imprisoned, not to be released till 1990, but continued over those years in captivity to provide his country with moral leadership and a vision of a united South Africa. His extraordinary story is one of struggle, survival, testing and triumph, and it is clear his steadfast Christian faith both informed his philosophy and inspired his hope.
As well as movingly describing family life in the rural villages and black townships, and the privations of his years in prison, Mandela is careful to explain how the ANC was almost always committed to peaceful protest. When he was in jail, guerrilla warfare was considered as a method of last resort but was never implemented under his leadership. The military arm of the ANC eventually resorted to violence by sabotage but endeavoured not to cause injury. One thing I noticed was that the struggle for emancipation was not one of black against white. There were many white South Africans - some Christians or communists but many of them Jews -sympathetic to the cause of emancipation.
That is interesting because I am not the only one to observe a parallel between the ideology of Twentieth Century Apartheid in South Africa and the current realities of life on the West Bank in Israel/Palestine. Discrimination in education, employment, travel privileges, and access to land and water characterise the oppression suffered by Palestinians in a place that is as much their homeland as it that of the Hebrews. Yet I feel hopeful because in South Africa, over long years of struggle, a peace was forged that enabled men and women of all races to walk as brothers and sisters into the future. (The South Africa of today is a troubled nation, but that has more to do with HIV/AIDS than with emancipation). My prayer for the Holy Land is that a new generation of insightful leaders will catalyse their own long walk to freedom.