Robben Island reflections: Mandela showed us how to forgive

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EDITOR’S NOTE: As Black History Month is celebrated this month in the United States and Canada, Tafadzwa W. Mudambanuki, central conference content coordinator for United Methodist Communications, reflects on the contribution of a black South African who “became the symbol of the ability to overcome adversity” and an inspiration to people of all colors and all nations.

I was driving home in pelting rain after picking up my son Kingsley from school on Dec. 5, 2013, when I got a call from Deacon Mike Mahlaule, a South African brother, who told me of the passing of President Nelson Mandela.

As I offered my condolences, a swirl of thoughts rushed into my mind for this great global icon of love, justice, freedom, reconciliation and peace. Who would replace him I wondered?  

Kingsley noticed I had received some disturbing news, and before he asked, I told him President Mandela had died. He sighed in disbelief. Kingsley is a keen follower of world events and personalities.

Remembering Robben Island

As I reflected on Mandela, affectionately known as Madiba, his clan name, my memory focused on a visit I made to Robben Island with the World Association of Christian Communicators. The communicators’ congress featured a program on apartheid titled “Clouds of Witnesses,” a biblical reference to people whose lives are examples of faith and witness in action.

When I arrived at Robben Island on Oct. 10, 2008, my birthday, I will never forget the concrete block buildings and tall barbed wire surrounding the prison. My group joined a tour given by one of the island’s former inmates, now a guide. A tall, slender and bald man in his mid-40s, he had been held for 15 years for various terrorist offenses under the apartheid government. Since his release in 1990, he has committed himself to showing and telling the story of the island.

“When one is brought here, you no longer have any rights at all,” the guide said. “When the apartheid authorities bring you to Robben Island in leg irons and handcuffs, you were treated like a wild animal. The apartheid authorities psychologically applied all physical means to break one’s resilience.

“When they gave you a number as your identity, they gave you a prison uniform — shorts and no shoes for coloreds. The white prisoners got trousers and shoes. A number they gave you became your new identity.”

Mandela: ID #46664

Our tour guide first took us to Block B where the apartheid authorities imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 18 years. Nelson Mandela’s identity number was 46664. I saw a tiny cell where Mandela, who was about 6 feet 2 inches, had been imprisoned. I quickly associated the gait of his walk with this matchbox prison cell. The tiny room had barred windows, a green bucket, a small rolled brown blanket and concrete floor.

A stone’s throw from Mandela’s cell were the censorship offices, the study offices and the section where punishments were meted out. The authorities did not inflict physical torture, but the apartheid authorities denied the inmates creature comforts and kept them in solitary confinement for weeks. “That alone was enough to drive one crazy in this solitary place,” said the tour guide.

The authorities figured they had to block cross-pollination of ideas among the prisoners. They confined each prisoner in a solitary space. It was in this stifled environment that Mandela wrote his book “Long Walk to Freedom.”

The tour guide said Mandela wrote the manuscripts and hid the book notes close to the wall of the prison under a stunted shrub in plastic bags to avoid the impact of the vagaries of weather. It is unclear how Mandela got the manuscripts out of the prison after he hid them in the plastic bags.

Triumph of human spirit over adversity

Across the island at the limestone quarries, I saw where the prisoners worked all day breaking limestone without protective gear. “Inmates demanded sunglasses but they were not given,” the tour guide said. This limestone area is believed by many to be the genesis of health problems Mandela suffered in his twilight years.

Looking back at the concrete buildings as I left, I thought that Robben Island has become a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Mandela’s life was awe-inspiring because he fought a fortress apartheid system of racial segregation with astounding stoicism.

Apartheid authorities attacked Mandela’s character, but he persevered. Acts 16 perhaps sums it all. Paul and Silas under incarceration were able to sing praise and worship songs resulting in an earthquake of deliverance when God stretched his hand on their situation. Mandela’s attitude made possible his struggle for freedom and liberty for all races. He could not control what happened to him but he had the capacity to control his attitude.

‘90 percent of life is reacting to other 10’

I have realized that 10 percent of life is what happens to a person and 90 percent of life is how one reacts to what happens.

Mandela’s attitude was forged in his formative years in the Methodist heritage that espoused Christian principles of justice, forgiveness, reconciliation and love. It was at Robben Island that his political and social philosophies flowered. Mandela proved to the world that the control center of one’s life is one’s attitude. Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character.

It is incomprehensible that one could spend 27 years in such inhumane conditions and still have the capacity to love, to forgive and the grace to lead a shibboleth (Judges 12:6) nation to a rainbow nation in 1994 when he was inaugurated the first black president of South Africa. There is nothing impossible before God for a person with a positive attitude because he or she has the ability to remain optimistic in uncertain and adverse conditions.

Mandela became the symbol of the ability to overcome adversity. Some people would have chosen to be bitter if they walked his shoes. Maya Angelou said, “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.” Mandela chose to forgive and embraced a better future for himself and a nation.

How was I changed?

I asked myself what was born in my life that day after visiting Mandela’s cell on my birthday. I learned to mend fences with adversaries. I learned to be frank with anyone I come across and vowed to shun hypocrisy — an evil bread of the Pharisees (Luke 12:1-2) — thanks to Madiba’s pioneering template on forgiveness.

My visit reinforced the notion about purpose, which was seared in my mind while in Madiba’s prison cell. Purpose is the essence of life. It’s a spiritual thing. Purpose as demonstrated by Madiba is magnified when lives are affected positively and tremendously by a person’s lifestyle. Purpose can never be aborted and is the foundation on which others can build their lives.

Just like the biblical Moses, Madiba’s purpose was connected to fellow human beings. His purpose was to liberate the people of South Africa and then the rest of the world. His painful days in prison revealed Madiba’s purpose through the assignment he successfully championed. The question I ask myself is: Where I am on the map of God?

Madiba had a penchant to lift people out of poverty and energize their economies. What comes to mind is November 2006, when Mandela and his wife, Graca Machel, gracefully strolled into Hotel Avenida in Maputo, Mozambique, to pay a surprise visit to United Methodist bishops. He repeated a joke about going to heaven. He spoke about bettering people’s lives without any streak of bitterness after all those years of incarceration. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave us the way forward when confronted with resentment and bitterness. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Mandela espoused that biblical principle in real life. He was a spiritual man who loved God’s people. 

These are the lessons I would instill in my son as I try to live them myself and make the world a better place. I will leave you with this task. Would you please do an attitude check on your life? I know that it is not easy.

Remember we have a one-man cloud of witness in Nelson R. Mandela. I recall the echoes of our tour guide’s words at Robben Island at the close of our tour, “Freedom is not free but one has to pay dearly to get it.” Rest in perfect peace, Madiba!

* Tafadzwa W. Mudambanuki is central conference content coordinator for United Methodist News Service. Contact him at (615)742-5470 or at [email protected]

This feature story first appeared on on February 20, 2014.

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