A tribute to Tata Madiba
His life has redefined, inspired and shaped the life of a nation. His life and example also were instrumental in defining, shaping and inspiring mine, writes Bruce Nadin, a former minister at Sutton Elms Baptist Church, Leicestershire who now co-leads a multi-racial church in one of Cape Town’s most disadvantaged and dangerous communities.
Thembile Mapukata, a 19 year old footballer from one of Cape Town’s townships (pictured below), stands to address his peers at a weekly Bible Study I lead at one of South Africa’s leading soccer schools. It’s 15 hours after the nation first heard the news -‘Tata Madiba’, the great freedom fighter, the beloved first President of a once traumatized nation, had died. Thembile like the other 20 young men in the room wasn’t alive when Mandela was released in 1990 following 27 years in prison, but they all knew that their lives were radically different as a result of what he (and others) had achieved.
The young men he addresses are Xhosa, Cape Coloured, White, Indian, Zambian. Such a gathering would have been illegal in a previous generation. In the room stands one of their coaches - a white Brit married to a black Xhosa woman. Multi-racial unions like theirs were prohibited under the old dispensation.
The young men in the room have dreams; dreams that their God-given talent in football and the opportunity they now have to develop this talent can enable them to become professional footballers in South Africa, North America Europe. The people in this room were a small picture of what Mandela and the fight for freedom in South Africa had achieved. As Thembile said, “None of this would have been possible without Mandela.”
I don’t know where Mandela stood in relation to Christ – only God knows that. But I do know that God graciously blessed this beautiful rainbow nation I’m privileged to call my adopted home, with a leader who embodied so much that is at the heart of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
His life has redefined, inspired and shaped the life of a nation. His life and example also were instrumental in defining, shaping and inspiring mine. In 1983 I first encountered Christ, the Gospels and the Hebrew Prophets. With the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in another, my eyes were opened for the first time to the great racial and economic injustices that existed in the world. Apartheid in South Africa – a demonic system built on the subjection of peoples based simply on the colour of their skin; a system that espoused the ‘divine’ superiority of one race over others – was the antithesis of God’s vision of a diverse community of people reconciled through the cross. As a new recruit to the Way of Jesus I knew I could not sit back and do nothing.
A commitment to the cause of justice in South Africa was part of God’s redemptive work in history and I must add my voice. I actively supported the campaign to end Apartheid. I wrote letters, lobbied MPs, joined prayer vigils outside the South African High Commission in London, and boycotted South African goods and encouraged others to do the same. I was a young, naïve radical – and there’s part of me that hopes that growing maturity has not tamed my passion or commitment.
The man who most clearly represented the dream of a new dispensation in South Africa was a Xhosa lawyer imprisoned for his commitment to multi-racial democracy. Yet however much we hoped that he would embody the hopes for this new dispensation, what toll would 27 years of cruel and unjust treatment in prison have on his life?
The man who emerged from that prison cell was one whose character had been forged through the furnace of suffering. He emerged not bitter but better; he emerged with a sharpened vision of what South Africa could be – a rainbow nation whose future must be built on the unshakeable foundation of forgiveness and reconciliation.
He modeled sacrificial servant leadership, seeking always to put the needs of the nation and especially its weakest members before his own health and comfort. A stand out example was his refusal to be released from prison on the terms set by the Apartheid regime. These terms would have compromised his ability to speak truth to power. As he made clear at the time, he could not be free if his people were not free! That willingness to sacrifice personal comfort for a greater cause continued after his release. He traveled the globe meeting political leaders on a schedule that would have defeated a person 50 years his junior, and he courageously entered South African communities rife with political violence often at great risk to his personal safety. The goal was a unified multi-racial democracy at peace with itself… He gave his life for this vision.
Sacrifice, forgiveness, justice – these were the great themes of his life. As one of the young footballers said, “He did some of the things Jesus did. I know he’s not Jesus, but you know what I mean. It’s like he copied Jesus”. And this young man has a point. It’s for this reason we need to keep his story alive in South Africa and beyond. Not so we deify a man who was fragile flesh like us all, but so we can capture the best of what he was and use his story to point people to Jesus Christ who perfectly embodied our humanity.
I don’t know where Mandela stood with Christ, but I do know that he embodied much of what the message of Jesus stood for - a message of forgiveness, reconciliation, unity, and justice for the oppressed. In many ways he represented those values much better than those of us who more confidently declare Christ’s name. Mandela wouldn’t want to be cast in stone, but for South Africans to become a living memorial to the best of what he was, and what he stood for. As I said to the young men at ASD, “In so far as Tata Madiba imitated Christ, so we should imitate him.”
Bruce Nadin, is former Minister at Sutton Elms Baptist Church, Leicestershire. He moved to South Africa with his wife Louise (who works as a Health educator) and his youngest daughter Grace in 2009. He presently co-leads a multi-racial church in one of Cape Town’s most disadvantaged and dangerous communities. He also maintains a pioneering ministry to local professional football.
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