'A spiritual pioneer'

Published: Sunday | December 8, 2013 Comments 0
Nelson Mandela and his then wife Winnie arriving in Jamaica on July 24, 1991.
Nelson Mandela and his then wife Winnie arriving in Jamaica on July 24, 1991.
Nelson Mandela addressing Parliament during his visit to Jamaica in 1991.
Nelson Mandela addressing Parliament during his visit to Jamaica in 1991.

Dana Evan Kaplan, Contributor

Nelson Mandela became a symbol of justice coupled with compassion as he taught the world the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation.

He consistently stressed the need for healing and reconciliation and lived his life accordingly.

By granting amnesty to those who had committed crimes during the apartheid years under the condition that they testified honestly and fully, he allowed for freedom to thrive without the compounding of recriminations and mutual hatred.

A spiritual pioneer, Mandela will go down in history as one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen.

As the rabbi of Temple Israel in Cape Town from 1994 to 1997, I met then President Mandela at the induction of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The TRC was a court-like restorative justice body in which those who had suffered under apartheid gave statements about their experiences in order to educate the world about the abuses of civil rights that had been perpetrated.

Those responsible testified and requested amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.

It was not perfect justice but it created a positive environment in which freedom could blossom. I was one of about 25 clergy from virtually every faith imaginable who blessed the commission at the commencement of activities.

It was a beautiful event that helped to launch the 'Rainbow Nation'.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela describes his 27 years in South African prisons following his conviction at the 1964 Rivonia Trial.

The book tells of his release from Robben Island and the negotiated process with the apartheid government that led to the end of that horrible system of discrimination.

Mandela's release would allow negotiations to begin, triggering the hope that all people in the land would be free together.

Despite his personal suffering, his prioritising of reconciliation over justice was a profound act of goodwill that became the cornerstone of the new South Africa.

Mandela wrote that he was not born with a hunger to be free. It was only when he learned that his boyhood freedom was an illusion that he began to hunger for that freedom.

At first he wanted freedom only for himself, and then later for his family. Then he began to hunger for the freedom of his tribe, the Xhosa.

In prison, "It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black."

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote of hearing the February 10, 1990 announcement that Mandela would be freed from prison the following day: "It (the release) is saying to us, God hears ... God acts, God is really involved."

His accomplishment is indeed a divine miracle. I pray for the soul of Nelson Mandela and for the idealistic hope that he represents.

His life is proof that we human beings can overcome the legacy of bitterness and hatred and bring peace and loving-kindness into the world.

Dana Evan Kaplan, now rabbi of the United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, led Temple Israel Green Point in Cape Town during the first years of democracy in South Africa. His new book, 'The New Reform Judaism', has just been published by the Jewish Publication Society.

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