Henry S. Fraser
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” (Nelson Madiba Mandela)
“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.” (Nelson Madiba Mandela)
Many millions, perhaps billions, of words have been spoken and written in the last 10 days about the man who must be remembered as the Man of the Millenium as well as the man of the century. For fifty years and more, in jail and out of jail, this amazing man – this heroic leader, patient patriot, dynamic statesman, diplomat, pragmatic philosopher and inspiring South African, who triumphed over adversity in the most remarkable, way has earned the respect, admiration and, to be frank, “hero-worship” of the world. He combines the attributes of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa. Although many consider him saint-like, he once said something like: “Don’t call me a saint, unless you mean a sinner who keeps trying to do better”.
In the many tributes to Mandela many speakers claim a “Mandela moment” when at some point in their lives Mandela’s incarceration, his commitment, his walk to freedom, his leadership, some statement he made or even meeting him, was a significant, inspiring moment for them. I can claim no such moment, but I do have vivid memories of my own drawing of inspiration from Martin Luther King’s campaign in 1963, when I was travelling through the deep South, including Atlanta, and was shocked by the barbarity of the racism in that “land of the free”; of my extensive reading on the anti-apartheid movement while a young medical student at UWI; of anti-apartheid candle-light marching as a student from University College London on Gower Street to Trafalgar Square in 1964; and of the monumental biography of his “Long walk to Freedom”. And hand in hand with his biography should go at least two of the splendid books of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: No Future without Forgiveness, and The Book of Forgiving: The Four fold path for healing ourselves and the World. Because the legacy of Mandela is the power of forgiveness.
In the Senate tributes on Wednesday, Senator Dr. Jerome Walcott emphasised the characterising quotation of Mandela in a letter to his wife: “Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity and readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundations of one’s spiritual life.” Senator John Watson said “Let us all pledge to take his advice.” President Kerry-Ann Ifill exhorted everyone: “Let us not just speak empty words, but hold him up for us all to emulate.” And Senator the Hon. Dr. Esther Byer-Suckoo quoted his famous dictum “Education changes the world.” My own take on Mandela is that forgiveness changes people, and this in turn changes the world. In that famous letter of 1975 Mandela went on to emphasise the importance of introspection and analysing one’s strengths and weaknesses, and this was part of Senator Irene Sandiford-Garner’s contribution – that this should be a time of introspection for us all.
And here I come back to my quotations at the top of this column. While the first is perhaps the most famous and one of the most encouraging for us all “to stick with the task” with his kind of dedication, it’s the second that we need to understand, and to apply in our own lives. For this is what changes us and changes the world. Bitterness and anger carried with us throughout life is like living with a huge, heavy sack on our shoulders, bowing us down, slowing us down, and spoiling every day for us. Forgiveness truly frees us from that burden of anger, bitterness and regret. It is carrying the blows of whoever hurt us with us to constantly hurt us again and again, day after day.
Forgiveness should be the eternal legacy of Nelson Mandela, for all mankind. And perhaps his departure at this time, as Christians everywhere prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, can highlight the difference between the power of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit and our own efforts as ordinary mortals to strive for perfection. In Mandela’s words “Sinners striving to do better”, forgiving those who have done us wrong is the most powerful and liberating thing we can do. Let us give the gift of forgiveness. If we don’t leave hatred and bitterness behind, we are still in prison and still enslaved – this applies to us in our personal lives and at a communal, political and national level. It applies to victims present and past, and teaches us to let go of the wrongs and bitterness of the past and not to remain mental slaves. Education changes the world, while forgiveness changes people, and in turn changes the world.
Bouquet: To Deputy PS in the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Youth, Celia Toppin, for her eloquent emphasis on the development of cultural and heritage tourism for the sustainability of our tourism product, and especially the huge opportunities that exist in theatre and film. One needs only to recall our own dramatic historical saga of Inkle and Yarico – a true story reported in Richard Ligon’s “A True and exact History of the Island of Barbadoes” (1657). An opera was performed in London in 1787, with 98 performances, and productions followed in Dublin, Jamaica, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Calcutta. It was revived for the Holder’s Festival here in Barbados in 1996 and performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999. Who will tackle the story of our Gentleman Pirate Stede Bonnet, born some 330 years ago in the house where I live, and hung with tears and drama in Charleston, South Carolina?
Professor Fraser is Past President of the Barbados National Trust and Past Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences, UWI, Cave Hill (Website: profhenryfraser.com)