Today when reading Nelson Mandela’s first speech after his release from prison in 1990 out loud to my class, I was sideswiped by my unexpected tears.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. 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.”
Although powerful words, my deep reaction struck me as odd because I’ve been teaching this same stuff for 5 years now. Maybe time number 6 is when it really sunk in. Or more likely, my flesh and blood experience in South Africa this summer touched me more deeply than I thought. It was comforting to know I’m not too cynical for this story.
I’ve taken two African-American history classes with a white woman who went to prep school and UVA. When I asked her how she found herself with a PhD in African-American history, she said “I’ve always been drawn to the struggle.” I think that’s how I feel about South Africa. The redemptive themes, the non-violent civil disobedience, the peaceful, patient dissent—I wish I had been there. I’m drawn to the struggle, but I’m skeptical still.
Here’s another tidbit I wrote over the summer.
As a (self-proclaimed) historian, I’ve been that person in our group who asks wayyyy to many questions. I’ve loved this opportunity to learn more about this unique nation and how the system of Apartheid continues to oppress and threaten the livelihood of many South Africans decades after it legally ended. I saw this in Capetown as well as in Mamelodi (the township we visited in Pretoria). The most obvious yet also most powerful aspect of this situation is that Apartheid is not exactly history in the traditional sense of the word. I mean, Nelson Mandela was elected in 1994. Clearly, the wounds are fresh, which causes whites to tread lightly in Mamelodi since race relations are still excruciating. Curfews, passbooks, massacres, The Nationalist Party, and District 6 are all recent memories for older generations. For some, like Pastor Vincent, it is still too painful to talk about. However, seeing the ways in which formerly oppressed people are seeking forgiveness and peacemaking here is a clear sign that God is transforming hearts.
Here’s the ultimate question. So what DOES it look like for mostly white Americans coming to Africa? What does help mean? I’ve learned that the white church here is lazy. Racial reconciliation is not even on the radar for the Powerhouse church because it seems so out of the realm of possibility. However, we know we serve a God who delights in proving the doubters wrong. I hope they are wrong.
According to the Africa Revolution folks, help looks like empowerment not paternalism, grassroots change rather than political protest, partnership not leadership. Authentic relationships, dignity, prayer. But I have to admit, it makes me uncomfortable. Walking around the township I wish my skin was darker (not a new feeling for me). It still feels like we have the answers. I believe that white skin and western values are not the answer, only Christ is the answer. This truth is more complicated than it sounds, maybe because colonialism and westernization have not completely disappeared, even from our own post-modern hearts. But I am hopeful… because from my limited view, this group does not look like The Poisonwood Bible, or The Berlin Conference, or The Dutch Reformed Church. It looks like Christ-centered love of neighbors, acknowledging dependence on something greater than themselves, and it looks like God is at work.