The following is a reflection on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela as written by a Fuller Seminary graduate. We will post more reflections from Fuller alum and leaders throughout the weekend.
Rev. Wilma Jakobsen (MDiv, '87) currently serves as rector of Saint Jude's Episcopal Church in Cupertino, California. Born in Cape Town, South Africa of immigrant parents from Denmark and Britain, Wima attended the University of Cape Town before coming to Fuller Seminary to receive her MDiv. Wilma returned to South Africa to be ordained as a deacon. Four years later, when the Anglican Church of Southern Africa finally allowed it, she became the first female priest ordained by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She worked for 15 years in the Diocese of Cape Town, in parishes in black townships, university towns, the cathedral, a rural parish with fishing and farming communities, and a 19-month stint as chaplain to Archbishop Tutu. During the apartheid years she was an anti-apartheid activist in church and faith based organizations, which crystallized her conviction of the connection between faith and social justice.
Legacy of a Leader: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
"Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans. I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands."
It was electrifying to hear those words. I wept. I was present at Cape Town's City Hall on February 11, 1990, when Nelson Mandela addressed the rally on his release from prison. I wept again in July as he lingered in hospital, as I remembered past moments and checked the news often to see if that was the unthinkable time when his remaining years had come to an end. He made it to his 95th birthday and improved enough to go home but was still described as critical. Now today, December 5th, his life has ended and I remember and reflect on a living legend of a leader, whose impact reverberates around the world, whose legacy inspires me and countless others to continue the struggle for justice and to end poverty.
In the years before 1990, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a mystery to most South Africans like myself. I was four years old during the Rivonia treason trial and too young to know much about him or the African National Congress (ANC). As a university student, my life was transformed through understanding the connection of faith and social justice in South Africa, and inspiration from others who courageously paid a price for their involvement in the struggle against apartheid.
There were only a few pictures of him taken before imprisonment that were circulated at various points of the struggle against apartheid or available in books that were banned, so we did not know what he would look like when he was released. Yet he was instantly recognizable - a man of mythical strength and courage to people like myself. At that time I learned about him from two books that I had covered in brown paper and hidden behind my bookcase, in case the security police ever paid a visit. Banned in South Africa, it was illegal to own them or have them in one's possession. They were a collection of his leading speeches and articles, including transcripts of the Rivonia trial and other trials in which he was accused.
What struck me then were two phrases about life and death, which I always remembered: "The struggle is my life" and "I am prepared to die." The first phrase was from the challenging conclusion of his press statement on June 26, 1961: "Will you come along with us…? Or are you going to remain silent and neutral in a matter of life and death to my people, to our people? … The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days."
The second is the conclusion of both his statement at the opening of his trial on charges of sabotage, in Pretoria on April 20, 1964, which he then quoted in Cape Town on February 11, 1990 after his release from prison. I was there at City Hall and I heard him say these words, as we danced and celebrated his release from prison with all our might: " I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
I had the privilege of meeting him on a couple of occasions, when I was working as chaplain for Archbishop Desmond Tutu. What was remarkable each time was that he took the time to shake hands with me and greeted me warmly, though I was clearly a "handlanger" - a helper with not much status in these occasions filled with important people. He lived out his value of respect for every person in tangible ways.
"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison." His insistence that his freedom and ours as a nation would be compromised unless resentment and bitterness were left behind has left an indelible mark on our country that we can only hope future generations will understand and persist in protecting it.
Lastly I have been inspired by his belief that leaders lead from the back. "A leader … is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind." If I, if we, can live out at least an iota of the leadership qualities of this remarkable man, his legacy will continue.
Nelson Mandela has lived for the struggle for justice, for a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa, for the struggle to end poverty. By his own admission he made missteps and he is not a saint. We had hoped he would live forever, yet knowing he was mortal, and now he has died and is on his journey to the next life. Now we know he is extraordinary yet mortal, he has lived out his words and left South Africa and the world with a legacy that has inspired thousands of people to continue the same struggle. "When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace." (Mandela, 1994) Madiba has died in peace, now we have to let him go. We need to pick up the spear he has laid down, and continue the struggle. He showed us the way, from bitterness to betterness, from oppression to freedom, with forgiveness, with enduring hope, with determination, to work for a better world for all.