This stunning sculpture commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the capture of Nelson Mandela in 1962. He was to spend the next 27 years of his life in prison. It sits just off the main road north from Durban towards Pietermaritzburg. I was fortunate enough to see it on visits to South Africa in both 2017 and 2019. It is at the heart of the province of KwaZulu Natal where violence is tearing South Africa apart following the imprisonment of former President Zuma.
My first visit was in 2003. Like many people from Northern Ireland, I was drawn by the miracle of reconciliation which Mandela’s transformational leadership symbolised. I experienced South Africa’s poverty – the poverty which has not been relieved since majority rule came. I spent Holy Week in the Anglican Parish in Khayelitsha township in Capetown. The image which endures is the footwashing on Maundy Thursday – broad black feet used to walking barefoot washed in pink plastic basins. It felt Christ-like.
I spent a lot of time in Belleville, one of the affluent suburbs of Capetown. My aim was to ‘get inside’ the white Afrikaaner community because I wanted to find out if there were affinities with the Ulster Protestants among whom I worked. And there were – I didn’t have their language but I gradually found them to be delightful and friendly people who were perpetually puzzled by finding themselves on the wrong side of history. I shared their home baking and their hospitality. In the end, we talked – tentatively – about how you find your way when history deals you a difficult hand. It is the challenge which faces the Ulster Protestants to this day.
I spent time with the Diakonia ecumenical organisation in Durban and I spent a week with workers from Ulster Carpets in Portadown who were developing a carpet factory which Ulster Carpets had acquired just across the road from the airport in Durban.
My visits have continued – some work and some holiday – most recently a visit with friends to the Boer War and Zulu War Battlefields.
And now the dream and the hope which Mandela represented is at risk. South Africa may not have moved fast enough and far enough to remove poverty and create employment. Flawed leadership seems to have achieved that fatal combination which we also see in the US – of both stirring loyalty and destroying hope.
I fear that it will be some time before I can return. But South Africa, even in these dark days, will remain a beacon of hope – bad history can be turned around but it takes leadership of real spiritual depth to achieve it.