Growing up in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was a mystery man to many of us. The apartheid government did all in its assumed power to either erase him from, and/or re-interpret him in the second-hand pedagogical discourse we had access to. Moreover, the government took an extreme revisionist disposition towards the movement for freedom and dignity for all South Africans.
However, for many of us, there was education in the classrooms, and education in the room called life. Education for us in the room called life was characterized by discrimination and dehumanization, and enforced by oppression and marginalization.
The education in the room called life had us going from the shacks we lived and worshiped in, to the backyards we laughed, cried and sought safety in, to the dusty streets and soccer fields we played on.
Through banned books, outlawed curriculum and whispering voices, Nelson Mandela transitioned from a mystery man to a man on a mission; a mission that was informed by a movement to restore dignity and equality to everyone, and Ubuntu in all the land.
This mission and movement has infected and affected my life in unexpected and unexplained ways.
Moreover, as I find myself in the classroom of life located at the intersection of South Joburg and South Los Angeles, I am persuaded, that the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela must continue to inspire voice and vision, connect hearts and hands, and fortify feet towards the beloved community of dignity and equality.
Nelson Mandela envisioned such a community as one where supremacy has no place. He connected this vision upon entering prison in 1964, and when he walked out of prison in 1990. His defense statement became his statement of freedom.
He said, “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realized. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Hence, we meet Mandela at the intersection of dignity and equality when we resist the barbaric and evil manifestations of supremacy in all its institutionalized and internalized forms – manifestations that provide roots and sustenance for inequality.
Equality for all was an unapologetic commitment of Nelson Mandela. He had a sense that equality was an inextricable thread connecting humanity into a poly-cultural garment of destiny. If supremacy has crashed us all into the intersection of oppression, then a collective covenant to equality is a sacred calling to restore human dignity.
When we meet Mandela at such an intersection, you will hear him articulate such a sacred trust as follows, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” In these tumultuous times there is no time to compromise human dignity and integrity. In these consequential times, there is no room to dumb down human ability and capability.
Stigmatization in general, but in particular towards people living with HIV/AIDS, was a behavior that Mandela described as inexcusable and deplorable. At the intersection of personal pride, traditional protocol, and public safety, Mandela chose to announce to the world that his grandson died of HIV/AIDS.
This was clearly a bodacious decision to educate and advocate. His personal tragedy became a national and international teachable moment to mobilize against the atrocity of stigmatization.
Describing HIV/AIDS as a war on humanity, Mandela believed that many people suffering from HIV/AIDS are not killed by the disease itself. Instead, they are killed by the stigma surrounding everybody who has HIV/AIDS. He urged families, leaders, and everyone who has influence to do everything in their power to fight and to win the struggle against this stigma.
Given his commitment to humanity, dignity and equality, Nelson Mandela believed in the power and purpose of forgiveness. He embodied the collective consequences of fear grounded in ignorance and indifference for the uniquely ‘other.’
Having seen and experienced such inhumanity, he believed that forgiveness is a path to wholeness. From this intersection Mandela broadcasted a warning that “resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
Grounded in accountability with dignity, reconciliation with truth, Mandela promoted forgiveness and goodness as paths leading towards the restoration of inner and outer beauty. Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness; instead, it’s a strategic practice to reclaim the greatness God has called you to achieve.
Reaching our collective destiny of wholeness through forgiveness, humanity through equality, resisting supremacy and stigmatization, is no easy walk to freedom. Though the Supreme Court put racial equality at risk, and affirmed same-gender marriage, we must continue to develop a courageous and audacious faith, and deploy fortitude for the long haul.
Restoring dignity and equality is a long walk through the valley of the shadow of despondency and death, over the hills of betrayal and bitterness, and through the rivers of Babylon and Kliptown, Gilead and Soweto. Though not easy, it is a walk we do not take by ourselves.
For at the intersection of dignity and equality, we will possibly meet-up with Audre, Martin, Harriet, Marley, and Langston. Though long, we have the certainty that history’s crescent leans towards the mountaintop of equality and dignity for everyone.
The Rev. Kelvin Sauls is the pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles.