Reflections on South Africa
Nelson Mandela said in his book, Long Walk to Freedom, “I always knew that someday I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine a free man.” Now, he is free and at eighty-eight still is an inspirational voice for freedom. Once he was a political prisoner at the feared Robben Island prison. Richard Stengel writes of the cell, “When I visited Robben Island and walked into Mandela’s little cell I just gasped. Mandela is not only physically large, he’s large in every sense. And here was this tiny space that even a toddler would feel cramped in and somehow Mandela had stuffed his largeness into it.” MANELA: The Authorized Portrait.
In December 2006, four of us from Messiah College were privileged to visit South Africa. Our diverse group was on a mission to explore building relationships and see if opportunity existed for partnerships in education and reconciliation with South Africans and sister institutions. After a full morning of activity and meetings, we left Cape Town to visit Robben Island and the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for so many years.
My friend, Modise Phekonyane, was our guide through the Robben Island prison tour. He and I recognized each other immediately from my previous visit to Robben Island last summer. He graciously offered for me to go with another guide since I had heard him in my previous visit. I declined saying that his presentation was eloquent and I wanted to hear it once again. Previously, Modise was a political prisoner incarcerated in the horrors of Robben Island at age sixteen for not being willing to speak Afrikaans in school. His description of the brutal experience is overwhelmingly painful yet Modise speaks strongly of forgiveness, reconciliation and life lessons learned in the midst of the brutality and inhumane conditions.
As we journeyed through the prison tour, Modise spoke of me kindly as his “honored guest.” I was humbled by his kindness. Then we left the prison courtyard to file through the narrow hallway to Nelson Mandela’s cell. I had lingered to take a photo of the garden that Madiba, Nelson Mandela, had planted at the edge of the courtyard. As I walked into the crowded hallway, Modise asked me to come forward through the crowd. As I approached him he spoke of a symbolic act embracing hope. Then, he pulled a key from his pocket and announced, “I have the key to Mandela’s cell. Today we will unlock it together.” Tears filled my eyes. I could not believe this privileged honor. Modise spoke directly to me in a tone for everyone to hear, “It usually was white men who locked up black men in this prison. You cannot help it that you were born white and I cannot help it that I was born black. But, today, we will together unlock Nelson Mandela’s cell as a symbol of future possibilities together.” I was so overcome by emotion that I could hardly place my hand over Modise’s hand to grasp the key. Together, we turned the lock and he opened the door and invited me to enter. It was so small that I took one step and I was standing on the bed pallet. Emotions raged through my mind. How could this happen? What inhumanity lies within the souls of each of us? What motivates people like Nelson Mandela and Modise to forgive and become committed to gracious reconciliation? My mind literally traveled through a million questions in a few seconds of time.
Then I stepped out of the cell into the hallway and embraced Modise and wept and wept. Others entered and left the cell and moved on down the hallway. Modise stayed with we four educators from Messiah College as we wept, embraced and spoke quietly in broken tones. Something significant happened. A white man, a black man, a black woman and a white woman from Messiah College saw barriers melt in the presence of Modise, the former prisoner now a leader in reconciliation. We were able to converse with Modise and discover how God is using him in a message of reconciliation internationally. Later, as he boarded the boat with us to return to Cape Town, he mentioned it was the same boat that brought him to Robben Island at sixteen and where he spent over five years imprisoned. He read aloud to us portions of the book he is writing. His insights wove wonderful thoughts and concepts embracing reconciliation and forgiveness together . We could hardly bear to say “Goodbye” when we reached shore.
What happened on that tour was a “God sighting” for all of us that day. We are educators. But this was an experience that moved us beyond the intellectual information to deep life questions that touched both mind and heart. We will still struggle in this journey of reconciliation but I think all of us now understand it is not simply a personal journey but one we make together. Our lives are inextricably woven together around this event and because of it, we have a connection that resounds with reconciliation. It is not just our effort to journey but a new level of motivation has touched us all. How do we communicate such an experience? It has been difficult to fully express.
We returned to campus. A student leader asked if she could meet with me to hear some South African stories. I was thrilled to meet and as I shared this story, she wept with me. I mentioned that now a key will be very symbolic to me. Kristen said that her father restored Victorian homes and was sure she could get a key for me. I said “No, thank you, that is not necessary. I will pick one up sometime and keep it as a reminder.” Kristen returned to campus from the weekend at her home with a beautifully mounted key in a gold gilded frame from the 1880s. It is a generous treasure and constant reminder of the journey. As I thanked her, she said that “thanks” was not necessary because it allowed her and her father to work together in a way they had not done for some time. I am still moved to emotion when I think how this journey continues the effort of reconciliation.
Today, as I gaze across my desk to the key framed in my bookshelf, I am reminded of the words spoken by Modise, “But, today, we will together unlock Mandela’s cell as a symbol of future possibilities together.” Sometimes I smile because I know this is a journey God has initiated and other times I weep because I see how far I have to go.
But the memory will linger through the years and a key whether on my bookshelf or in my hands to open a door will always remind me of “future possibilities.”
Draft February 1, 2007