Friday, December 6, 2013

What I Learned in Africa, Part 4

So far in this series of posts, I've been talking about my recent trip to Tanzania. 

But today, in honor of the passing of Nelson Mandela, I want to talk about my other trip to Africa. 

In 2011, I attended the World Methodist Conference in Durban, South Africa. Many thanks to Covenant member Roma Wyatt who got me to go. (At the time she was Executive Assistant to the General Secretary of the World Methodist Council.)

I learned a lot in South Africa. In fact, I was pretty amazed by what I learned. 

I knew about South Africa's history of Apartheid, which literally means "apartness." 48 years of a white minority brutally oppressing the black majority.  I figured that, even though Apartheid was officially over, there would still be lingering hostilities and tense race relations. 

But that was not the case. At least not in my (obviously limited) experience. 

I went to an opera about the life of Nelson Mandela. I sat there in the Durban Playhouse with black people and white people together, all celebrating the life of this man who spent 27 years in prison for leading the movement to end Apartheid. 

During intermission, I talked with a white South African who had lived through the actual events we were seeing on stage. He was immensely proud of what had happened. I told him I was a bit surprised by what I'd seen: Black people and white people eating together, shopping together, worshiping together--and now watching an opera about Mandela together. I told him how segregation in our country ended over 50 years ago, and yet I still encounter racial tension. 

I asked him, "Isn't there still a lot of racism here?"  He smiled and said, "It's hard to be racist when you're less than 20% of the population." And then with a laugh he added, "The only racists we have left are some old Afrikaners." 

Well, not too long after that I met "an old Afrikaner." (The Afrikaners are the descendants of Dutch settlers who instigated Apartheid and kept it going for all those years.) I fully expected to get an earful of racism. Instead, this man talked about how he had been a member of the South African army who guarded the polls on that historic day in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected President. He told me that before the 1994 election he gave speeches at churches and garden clubs and told the white South Africans, “It’s going to be OK.”    

And this "old Afrikaner" told me that he was proud to be part of that time in his country's history. 

He told me about the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when Nelson Mandela put on a Springbok jersey and handed the first place trophy to team captain Francois Pinnear. 

Before this Rugby had been seen as a sport only for white people. But Mandela managed to pull the whole country together behind the South African team. It was more than a sporting event. It was a moment of reconciliation and healing. 

And as he relived that moment, the old Afrikaner said (with his deep guttural accent), "Ya, Nelson Mandela's a good chap!" 

While I was in South Africa, I attended a Rugby game. I was in the stands with black and white people together, all pulling furiously for the Durban Sharks. 

At the World Methodist Conference I heard the head of the All Africa Council of Churches speak. He talked about the role the church played in South Africa’s reconciliation.

It was the church that called for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that worked to heal the divisions. He said, “How did the South African miracle happen? First and foremost because the church said, ‘A sinner should be forgiven.’”

So what did I learn on that trip to Africa? I learned that people can change. That an entire country can change. 

I learned that one man can make a difference.

I learned that the movie "Invictus" is accurate. 

I learned that Nelson Mandela was a Methodist! 

And perhaps most important, I learned about the power of reconciliation. And that the church still has a role to play in bringing it about. 

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