In the shadow of greatness
Today I met a great man.
I couldn’t quite understand his name. I wish I could.
Trying to make conversation I asked him whether he enjoyed doing the tour. His response was immediate “No – its depressing”.
Yet he still shows up.
His expensive footwear and clothing were an indication he wasn’t here for the money. His friends are now running the country.
He returned almost every day since 2005 to confront his horrible memories for the sake of people like me. People who might only hear of apartheid in books or on television. People who might let it happen again unless they are confonted with the stark, brutal reality of what one man can do to another.
He took us to his cell and showed us the menu that was segregated so that “asiatics” got better treatment than blacks.
He matter of factly told us about his ongoing kidney and liver issues from the only avenue of protest open to the prisoners – hunger strikes.
When someone commented in passing about how difficult it would be to survive he said that mandela was a great leader who organised the people to learn together and not lose hope.
At the end of the tour he sat us down and asked for questions. He had successfully avoided telling much of his own story to that point so I asked him how he ended up on the island.
He told a brief story of a young idealist who got involved in the student movement, stole across the border to angola to receive military training and came back to the struggle in Soweto before being arrested at the age of 24.
I remembered what I was like at that age and tried to imagine how I would cope with the hard labour and inhuman treatment of the island. I couldn’t imagine it.
As the boat pulled away I was challenged both by the humility of this man and his committment to perservere through suffering. Every day he is still suffering for the sake of the purpose he committed his life to as a teenager.
The visit to the lime quarry and Mandela’s cell focussed just how much the great man suffered.
In fact I was left with the clear picture that it was peoples capacity to suffer that actually brought about the change.
Maybe Romans chapter 5 is right:
2 And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
Certainly in the case of South Africa it was a willingness to suffer that built perserverance, that perserverance built character and that character has stunned the world with it’s grace that has produced hope.