Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Reflecting on Mandela's passing

Two years ago, my son and I were in South Africa for the U.N. climate conference (COP17). Before the meetings started, we had the wonderful opportunity to spend time with Angelene and John Swart. Angelene was the first woman and layperson elected as President of the Unity Board of the worldwide Moravian Church and presented with an honorary degree by our seminary a few years ago.   They had also previously visited Bethlehem. One of the first things I noted in their home in a suburb of Cape Town was a large poster of Nelson Mandela. It is difficult to fully comprehend how much he meant to this family, to anyone in that country.

Angelene and John Swart and Corey
Angelene and John grew up under apartheid in South Africa labeled as "colored" (even though they actually consider themselves black), and as such, had to leave their home and move to a neighborhood designated for coloreds. They showed us beaches that they were once banned from stepping foot on, but now become almost giddy when they can stop and stand on the once forbidden sand, take in the spectacular views, and fantasize about the retirement home they would like to build there.
The shoreline to the east of Cape Town
When they were the age of our college students, they spent time in Genadendal – the oldest mission station in the country – secretly plotting how they might participate in nonviolent disobedience to help the cause of Mandela and other freedom fighters in their country.

The village of Genadendal
The Swart’s took us to Robben Island – a place with a long legacy for serving as a place of banishment – once home to people with leprosy or mental illness. Most famously, it is the site of the maximum security prison for political prisoners and criminals where Mandel spent many years. Today, it is a World Heritage site, a symbol of the price that was paid for freedom, a sacred site for many South Africans.

Part of the prison on Robben Island
Peering into Cell #5

The quarry where Mandela was forced to do hard labor and
ended up with permanent vision and lung damage
Prior to going to the country, I knew of apartheid and Mandela and divestment, but it was a cursory knowledge. Hearing first-hand stories from the Swart family, visiting Mandela’s prison cell, being in South Africa – made it all much more real for me. I have since read much about the freedom fighters and the truth and reconciliation process, and I am in awe of the courage and leadership that Mandela demonstrated throughout his life. I perhaps have only the slightest idea of how significant he is/was to the people of South Africa, but at least I can begin to understand their reverence.

At the climate meetings that year, the controversial phrase “climate apartheid” was dubbed. I will leave you to ponder the implications of that concept. But while at the meetings, I wrote the following in a blog post (12/1/11):

Over the last two days, the COP17 President convened an Indaba – an isiZulu word that refers to a gathering of people, infused with wisdom and Ubuntu. I have heard the term Ubuntu several times while in South Africa and vaguely understand it as a philosophy that focuses on community rather than the individual.
Nelson Mandela has stated that “Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?” If there is a scale for how much an individual (or country) abides by this philosophy, the U.S. would be on the very low end.

My comments at the time reflected my frustration with the climate negotiations and our country’s role in blocking progress. But I think the sentiments are relevant to our society more generally. The current debate over corporate profit vs. fair wages in the fast food industry is just one example. Perhaps the best way that we can honor Mandela’s legacy is to begin pondering how we each can work to improve and strengthen community rather than focusing so much on individual gain.

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