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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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During the dark days of apartheid, each time a freedom fighter was killed by the security service or even by the orchestrated “black on black” violence, one of the mourners would shout “A spear has fallen!” and the rest of the crowd would then respond in a very loud and strong voice: “Pick it up!” – the idea that a warrior fights the battle left unfinished by his fallen comrade.
As South Africa and the world mourn the death of Nelson Mandela, a man of such magnanimity, humility and respect, one’s mind is shouting “a spear has fallen!” This time though, I ask myself whether we have anyone to pick up this spear. There is no one around, as far as one can see, who seem worthy.
Madiba achieved so many things that seemed humanly impossible, notably the ability to forgive those who made his life and that of his family hell on earth. The man the apartheid Government told everyone was a dangerous terrorist, not only forgave, he wanted all of us who perceived ourselves as the victims of apartheid to forgive. He also challenged the whites to reconcile with blacks.
During Madiba’s presidency many rural areas received electricity and clean running water for the first time, and he introduced feeding schemes in schools for children from poor families. His tremendous concern and care for others was born out of a genuine love for them.
Mandela had two unsuccessful marriages, one of which I’m convinced would have survived had he not been determined to see his people liberated. He did not achieve everything he wet out to do. Within the impossibly limited timeframe he had, he struggled with his beloved political party the African National Congress (ANC) to resolve the two thorny issues of economic justice and land reform.
Despite a growing black middle class, recent statistics show the number of poor black people is still unacceptably high and the gap between rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate.
And although the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) did a lot of good in a short space of time, there is still work to be done, especially in small towns and several other pockets of South Africa.
The soul of the ANC has been sold to highest bidder and corruption is rising daily. The magnanimity of Mandela and a whole generation of leaders like Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, is conspicuously absent in today’s leaders. The scramble for state resources and selfish gains render the poor poorer. Kleptocracy, nepotism and corruption have crept into the marrow of today’s leaders, many of whom have discarded the values that guided Mandela’s generation.
Why can we not see Mandela’s example emulated by those who claim to love, respect and want to maintain his legacy? It is a great loss for our South Africa, for Africa and the world. One can’t help but thank God for the gift of such a selfless leader and a generation of men and women of their calibre. One hopes his dream of justice, unity, freedom, care for others, reconciliation and humility persists in many leaders to come.
Fr Rampe Hlobo SJ is a Jesuit priest based in South Africa