REFLECTION BY BISHOP JOHN OSMERS, NELSON MANDELA MEMORIAL SERVICE HOLY CROSS CATHEDRAL, LUSAKA, ZAMBIA
11th December 2013
Your Excellencies, Political and Church leaders, all invited guests,
Our Memorial Service today for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is one of countless Memorial Services held world-wide. But this Memorial Service in Zambia has special significance. That is because of the especially close relationship of Zambia and the African National Congress, the party which today leads the South African Government. Some members of the ANC had their home here for a period of over forty years. For all those years Zambia has given unqualified support for the ANC leader, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
To mark Mandela’s passing, Dr Kenneth Kaunda, the founding father of this nation, wrote a fine article for the “Post”, newspaper, printed yesterday under the heading, ‘It’s a deep loss for Africa.” Dr Kaunda, wrote, and I quote, “the bonds between our nations run deep.” Dr Kaunda wrote of the shared struggle of Zambia and the South African ANC against the political and economic exploitation of colonialist control. I quote, “Zambia was the home of the ANC for more than a decade... Mandela was more to me than comrade. He was a brother. A brother in the common struggle for a liberated Africa. Today we are all free to create a better Africa on our terms because of his sacrifice.”
“Because of his sacrifice.” I would like to reflect on those words. My mind goes back to 1976 when I was an Anglican priest in Lesotho. That was the year that some thousands of South African youth left their country because of the Apartheid police who violently attacked students who were peacefully demonstrating against enforced teaching in Afrikaans. When they came into Lesotho these young people didn’t come lost and bewildered, they didn’t come not knowing what to do or where to go. They knew what they wanted. They wanted to join the liberation movement of the ANC and many of them its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. They knew who their leaders were. They were Nelson Mandela. They were the other ANC leaders on Robben Island; they were the local ANC Commissar, Chris Hani. .
In the year of those demonstrations, Nelson Mandela and his comrades in prison had been silenced on Robben Island since 1964, for the previous 12 years. They hadn’t been able to communicate with the outside world. Yet they maintained determined opposition to Apartheid, firm allegiance to the democratic ideals of the Freedom Charter that calls for a united, democratic, non-racist, non-sexist South Africa. Their commitment to the ANC, including its armed struggle, sent out a message. It gave those young people goals they could work towards, leaders they could look up to, Leaders who put the freedom of South Africa before their own freedom.
Those young exiles wanted education especially political education. Very fortunately I was able to provide many copies of a book compiled from Mandela’s writings, “No easy walk to freedom,” The book included the statements of the Rivonia trial, and a talented young activist, Kgothi Moletsane, wrote a musical on the trial, which many took part in.
It was so powerful that after only five public performances the Lesotho government closed it down. The SA security police felt so threatened by the student mobilization in Lesotho that they placed a parcel bomb in ANC literature coming from abroad to eliminate me and others who may open it. Some of us were injured, I lost my right hand, and part of my legs, but fortunately no-one was killed. That bomb was a lesson to us. That we were on the right path, and should continue even more forcefully than before.
Those young activists and others with them were inspired by Mandela’s spirit of resistance, his spirit of sacrifice for the freedom of all South Africans. Their commitment to the ANC and its leadership would carry the ANC to new heights. Some would lose their lives in combat. Some would come here to Lusaka to help form the Government in waiting for the new South Africa. Mandela’s 27 years in prison were not years that were lost. They spoke powerfully to a new generation of young South Africans, who were determined that the sacrifice of their leaders should bring the fruit of freedom, justice and peace for all.
In today’s Gospel reading our Lord speaks about true leadership being leadership to serve. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the heathen have power over them, and the leaders have complete authority. This however is not the way it is among you. If one of you wants to be great, he must be the servant of the rest. If one of you wants to be first, he must be the slave of all. For the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life to redeem many.” We salute Nelson Mandela today who in the spirit of great leaders through the ages gave his life completely in service for others.
We salute Mandela for his sacrificial life in service of others. We salute him also for the reconciliation he helped bring to a country divided by 300 years of racial separation and economic exploitation. Significantly when the Soweto students were fighting against being taught in Afrikaans, the language of the perceived oppressor, Mandela was diligently learning that same language, Afrikaans. He saw he needed to know Afrikaans to learn the political and military strategy of the leaders of the apartheid state. He needed to know it also to communicate with Afrikaner leaders at a deeper level. This was to follow the Freedom Charter that says that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, the African indigenous people, people of the land, and the Afrikaner and English settler communities as well.
Archbishop Tutu has suggested that Mandela’s 27 years of confinement were made into a blessing. They turned Mandela from being an angry young man to the mature statesman. Without compromising his principles he learned through adversity to show tolerance and patience and forgiveness to create the rainbow nation that belongs to all South Africans, black and white together.
I like to recount the story that after South African freedom in 1994 Thenjiwe Mtintso, a stalwart leader, and member of the ANC National Executive, wanted to change the official language of the SA Defence force, which was Afrikaans, to English. Mandela publically rebuked her. He understood well the pride of the Afrikaners in their language including those who formed a large part of the Defence Force.
That tolerance and understanding helped bring remarkable change in today’s SANDF where Afrikaner and African service personnel work together not with mistrust, but in harmony
Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation has much to teach all divided nations and communities. I think especially of the deeply divided nation of Rwanda, and that country’s 5000 Hutu Rwandan refugees who presently live in Zambia. They would love to return home, but feel they cannot do so until true reconciliation between Hutu and the Tutsi ruling class has been achieved. Mandela has taught what can be achieved by selfless and enlightened leadership within a democratic movement.
This brings me to my final point. In this memorial service us thank God for Nelson Mandela’s spirit of selfless service and work for reconciliation. We thank God also for Zambia and its leaders and people, who gave the ANC a home here for many years, and who supported the freedom struggle with great sacrifice. This was indispensable support. It was support, together with the democratic struggle inside South Africa, and international sanctions that eventually brought Mandela’s freedom and an end to the Apartheid regime.
I was ANC chaplain here in Lusaka from 1988 to when the comrades returned home, five years later. I could see very clearly how the 3000 comrades, had made their home here were being welcomed. In Zambia also they learned the lessons of what they wanted to achieve for a free South Africa. They saw it could be done. Zambia was a nation of many tribes, but molded by wise leadership into one nation. In Zambia they saw unity in diversity, respect for human rights, and concern for the common good. Today’s celebration should truly be a celebration not only for Nelson Mandela but also for Zambia, an oasis of peace from which came the victory of democratic forces to help bring his freedom. And eventually justice, freedom and peace for all South Africans, and beyond
May Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela rest in God’s peace.
May South Africa be a beacon of hope for a divided and troubled world.
May the goodwill between South Africa and the Zambian nation ever increase.
May God bless us all.
I thank you
Bishop John Osmers
Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Lusaka, Zambia