Monday, December 09, 2013

Judging Nelson Mandela

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the tithoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg into the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them the mountains if Ingeli and the East Griqualand.
The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well-tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil. Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it, and man is destroyed.
These are the opening words of Cry, The Beloved Country. It is a book that will strike you dumb with its beauty—and it will tear your heart out with the tragedy that was and is South Africa. In the process, it will give you a profound and intimate picture of the heart of this rich and tortured country.

No one has any business either praising or maligning Nelson Mandela until he has read it.

The land it speaks of is a metaphor for the souls of South Africa's people which, like the land itself, were once naturally rich and well-tended but have since been both exploited and neglected.
Where you stand the grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. For they grow red and bare; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry in the kloofs. Too many cattle feed upon the grass, too many fires have burned it. Stand shod upon it, for it is coarse and sharp, and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept, or guarded, or cared for, it no longer keeps men, guards men, cares for men. The tithoya does not cry here anymore.
The book is the story of two brothers. Stephen Kumalo is an elderly Black Anglican minister who in the course of the story sees the fate of his country in his own experiences. He leaves his rural Ndotsheni to go to Johannesburg—a sort of industrial Babylon that lures the people from their rural villages to look for jobs that aren't there—to find his sister, Gertrude, and his son, the appropriately-named Absalom Kumalo.

But Stephen is robbed at the bus station when he gets there and finds that his sister has become a drug-addicted prostitute. He finally discovers that his son, who had left the village and hadn't been heard from for two years has killed a white man during the burglary of a home—a white man who, ironically, is a spokesman for the cause of South African Blacks—and is being hunted by the police.

Johannesburg has also done its work on Kumalo's brother, John, who has become a powerful political leader who preaches revolution. John Kumalo has also left his native village of Indotsheni and gained his freedom from the tribal chief, but he has now enslaved himself to political ideology. It is John Kumalo's son who has helped to corrupt his cousin, Absalom.

In one of the most moving scenes in literature, Stephen Kumalo, old and weak, must go to the home of James Jarvis, the rich white father of the man whom Kumalo's son has killed. He is there on other business, and doesn't expect to find Jarvis at home, but he is there, and Kumalo is stricken with fear. Jarvis, who doesn't know who Kumalo is, asks him why he is afraid.
"There is something between you and me," says Jarvis to Kumalo, "but I do not know what it is."
"It is true umnumzana. You do not know what it is."
"I do not know, but I desire to know."
"... this thing which is the heaviest thing of all my years," says Kumalo, "is the heaviest thing of all your years also, ... It is my son that killed your son."
Jarvis is rendered speechless: Despite this disturbing reminder of the loss of his son, he looks at Kumalo and sees a broken and weak old man. Kumalo, a Christian minister, has never had any anger for the wealthy White men whom Jarvis represents (and whom his brother John is so eager to divest of their power, if not their lives), and Jarvis, seeing Kumalo in all his humanity, has pity on him. Later in the book, Jarvis will help Kumalo to rebuild Ndotsheni.

Paton's story is not a vindictive tale meant as an indictment against those who exploited its land and abused its people. There are good Whites and bad Blacks—and bad Whites and good Blacks. He makes us see and understand both sides, but through this we, the reader, see the requirements of justice--and mercy.

The hills above Ixopo, Stephen Kumalo's village, symbolize what South Africa once was, and Johannesburg what it has become. And Stephen and John Kumalo represent the two paths that could have been taken in the reformation of South Africa after the demise of apartheid.

It is ironic that Nelson Mandela began his political career in this same Johannesburg, where, after beginning peacefully, he learned his violent politics. But he transformed himself into a forgiving and peaceful leader: He entered jail in 1962 as John Kumalo, and came out in 1990 as Stephen Kumalo.

A plowshare that had been beaten into a sword was fashioned back into a plowshare.

"There is a new thing growing here," John Kumalo tells his skeptical Christian brother when Stephen finds him in Johannesburg. "Stronger than any church or chief. You will see it one day," he says, threateningly. Thanks to Mandela, South Africa has not seen the fate John Kumalo predicted for it and it has so far avoided the worst effects which have attended the handing over of power from Whites to Blacks in other African countries.

When Paton gave a lecture in America after writing Cry, the Beloved Country in 1948, he clearly believed that South Africa could and would grow out of its racial problems. He believed this because he believed the country could not continue to live with its racism. Why? Because, he said, South Africa was a Christian nation—a Christian nation with a Christian conscience that would not leave it in peace until it came to terms with how it treated its own people.

The secular media claims that Mandela was not religious, but others have pointed to his education in Methodist schools and his explicitly Christian remarks at several religious gatherings in the 1990s. I am skeptical of both of these claims. But we do know this: Whether he was a Christian or not when he left his cell in 1990, he acted like one, and for that he should be praised.

Liberals are hailing Mandela as a saint and emphasizing what he was transformed into, while many conservatives are calling him a sinner and emphasizing what he was transformed from. Nelson Mandela was a true representative of his country because he was both these things. He deserved the punishment he received because of his terrorists acts. But he also deserves the praise he's receiving now.

Mandela leaves a country that, thanks in large part to him, has dealt successfully with its past. But many of those in the ANC who came to power under Mandela's leadership do not share his integrity or his essentially Christian vision. The ANC-led government has been charged with widespread corruption, and whites are leaving the country in droves.

Mandela's death is to be mourned. But what we should mourn even more is that the man who led the country out of its past will not be there to help it as it faces its future.

1 comment:

Billy Henderson said...

Martin, thanks for this analysis of Mandela. I am reminded of Dostoevsky and his transformation through prison.

Whether Mandela was a Christian or not, to come out of prison better rather than worse is a testament to his character.

Let's pray that his pacifist legacy will not be lost and that there will be "men of good will" on which Christ can send peace in South Africa.

May the grass grow thick and matted.