Mandela’s emergence from prison in February of 1990 was as transformative as a butterfly being released from her cocoon. His years in incarcerated seclusion had changed him so deeply that it is now hard to fathom the violent proclivities he was once so prone to. Mandela’s Damascus Road experience was forged on a little island just a ferry ride from Cape Town, South Africa.
Much has been made of what happened to Mandela during those decades. Books have been written, and in recent years films have been released, all in their own way trying to probe the depths of what instigated his makeover. While there are many tributary speculations, the source of it all is embodied in the word forgiveness. Nelson Mandela refused to allow the injustices of apartheid to embitter his spirit. Only daily gulps at the fountain of forgiveness could truly cure what ailed him.
And it worked, so much so that President Mandela required that his nation return to the same fountain, over and over again. How else would a country which had been ravaged by apartheid ever come together? So convinced that forgiveness must lead the way, a series of gatherings were organized that the world would come to know as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (or TRC). These were powerful moments where people could openly confess their atrocities to the one’s they had offended, and be forgiven.
One of my favorite TRC stories is of the time in which a white police officer confessed to a black woman from Soweto that during apartheid he and his colleagues had come to her house, dragged her husband out into the streets, bound him with ropes, doused him with gasoline and lit a match setting him on fire. They then forced this woman to watch as her husband screamed to his death. As if that weren’t enough, six months later they returned to her home, bound her son, dragged him into the streets, doused him with gasoline, lit a match and made her watch the scene all over again, as the one she had given birth to screamed to his death. “These,” he said to this woman and a gathering of several hundred, “are my offenses”.
The audience was hushed wondering what this black woman would say to this white police officer. Peering into his face she said, “Sir, you have taken from me my only husband, and my only son- the loves of my life. I still feel as if I have a lot of love to give, and I would ask you for one thing. Would you come to my home several times a month? Would you let me cook and clean for you? Would you sir, let me love you?”
Stunned by her words, the audience sat in silence. A few moments later someone began singing a song written by an old slave trader, who like this man had committed racial injustices, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” After only a few lines the rest of the crowd joined in, releasing a sweet healing in that place.
As I reflect on the life and death of Nelson Mandela and all that he accomplished, his most powerful tool was not a government program, or a new ideology; it was simply forgiveness. South Africa still has a long walk ahead of her. But that walk has been shortened by lengthy strides of forgiveness.
If you’re reading this you probably don’t know the pain of having to watch your spouse and seed murdered, but you do know the intense hurt of betrayal, of having your heart broken by someone you thought you trusted. You may not know the frustration of having to sit in jail for decades, but you are well acquainted with the cell of anguish as you have been lied on, gossiped about and made to look like a fool. The long walk to freedom can only begin with one word- forgive. Let it go. Release the debt.
Mandela, sir, thanks for your example.