There is, and I would guess, will be for a few days, a lot being written about the passing of Nelson Mandela. As I scrolled through my Twitter feed this, two things stood out immediately. The first is a post by BuzzFeed that shows the front pages of newspapers and the choices of photos used for those front pages, take a look here. The second is an article posted in The Atlantic by a journalist who moved to South Africa as a kid and remains there today some years later. He shares some experiences and insights that resonated with me from my very limited experience having been to South Africa three times since ’08. You might outta take 5 minutes and read this.
This post is not really about Nelson Mandela. I don’t know enough to write about him. What I know comes second hand and you can do that yourself. On this day when eyes are focused on the man, I thought that I would write and think about my observations from the visits and conversations I have had with South Africans.
South Africa is an incredibly complicated place today.
I remember the first time I ventured out on a walk alone. I was staying with ministry partners who lived in an apartment. I went out into the cold of July for a walk and remember two things vividly. The nice houses had high walls with broken glass embedded on the top of the walls and a sign that warned intruders that an alarm wound bring an “armed response.” On another day I actually saw (as it was pointed out to me) what that armed response looked like, a pickup truck heading down the road with a half dozen guys (mostly black and colored) with rifles (I couldn’t tell if these were automatic weapons or not). In some senses it really felt like the wild west.
The other thing that struck me was that people seemed to have little to do. Large groups of black men would hang around certain street corners and wait for a white man to drive up in his pick up truck, say a few words to them and a couple of them would get in the back of the “buckey,” as it is called there, and go to earn some money as day laborers. The thing that struck me was that they climbed in the back even though there was room in the cab. This was actually normal I was told. Apartheid was over, but racism remain.
If there was a word that I would use to describe South Africa, I think it might be “fear.” It would appear to me (this is just my opinion) that fear of many things is prevalent there. This is why I set the link to the article above, the writer describes it better than I could. Here it is again if you did not look before. The story of the man gathering guns for protection reminded me of stories from Vukovar where people had weapons and grenades buried in oil cloth in the back yard and even under their beds “just in case.”
The last thing I noticed was the wide disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in South Africa. But actually, I am hopeful. Now, granted, I have very little experience there and my hopefulness is based just on my experience, but I am, as I look back from ’08 and ’09 to this last summer when I was last there, I am hopeful.
I spoke in a church that had whites, blacks and coloreds (I am told that “blacks” are tribal peoples and “coloreds” are mixed race folk, hence the terms). This church, mostly white, is led by a pastor who is white. Back in the early summer Mandela was in the hospital and was feared close to death. The pastor may have surprised some in attendance by have a special time of prayer for Mandela and for South Africa. This was pretty significant. Indeed it is significant that this church has opened its doors to all people. I am thankful for this. From this I get hope.
Further, there are things happening at a grass roots level for the poor. And many of these programs being led by whites. And those that I am in touch with are being led by Christians who realize they have a responsibility to work for justice. So they help the poor.
One of those programs that you may have read about here is a program called Growing Hope. One of our ministry partners, Josh Davis, is investing time and money in helping people in townships grow vegetables to improve the diets of their family [learn more here]. Since AIDS is a big problem there, diet is important to help the anti-retro-viral drugs work, so vegetables are a pretty big deal. Once, while Josh was helping a family dig a garden, an older black man was passing by and saw this white man digging in a black family’s garden and said “Now I know Apartheid is over.” These servants of Jesus are bring Growing Hope.
Nelson Mandela never gave up hope. We shouldn’t either. There is hope for South Africa. And Jesus followers are bring that hope.
Do you have hope?
Are you working to bring hope?