Widespread concern for Nelson Mandela’s health across our planet, but particularly in South Africa, has lessened with doctors’ assurances that his condition is steadily improving in the face of his most recent medical challenge, pneumonia.
As the 94-year-old former president of South Africa (1994-1999) remains in hospital, though, his fragile condition underlines our awareness of his ultimate mortality. His inevitable passing will be truly mourned around the world.
Mandela’s struggle against the apartheid system remains a keen global symbol of humanity’s age-old striving for the recognition of and respect for our common, basic humanity. Apartheid had relegated the majority of the people of South Africa to the lowest rung of the political, economic and social strata of their land, based solely on the colour of their skin.
His presidency witnessed a call for all people, no matter what ethnicity or language, skin colour or sexual orientation they were identified by, to seek reconciliation and to work together in creating a truly just “rainbow nation.” Nelson Mandela’s forgiveness of his enemies even in light of the 27 long, harsh years of imprisonment he endured raised him even higher as a world figure, pointing all humanity towards a better possible future.
Twenty-five years ago while serving as president of the National Council of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, I certainly recall strident criticism of our organization’s anti-apartheid position. Letters came to me denouncing our support for the “terrorist” Mandela and the “communist” African National Congress party which he headed.
We heard verses from the Jewish scriptures like Genesis 9:20-27, Noah’s curse of slavery placed on Canaan, son of Ham, being used to justify oppression. Somehow over the millennia black-skinned people had become identified as sons and daughters of Canaan and thus condemned to slavery or to suffer under apartheid.
In 1950, UNESCO, in response to the genocidal policies of Nazism, declared that there was no biological determinant or basis for race. Science, particularly our understanding of genetics, affirmed the fact that the notion of race in regards to humans is a social, cultural and political construct not based any scientific reality. We clearly know now that we share one common humanity no matter how our ancestral environments may have altered the amount of the skin coloring pigment, melanin, we have inherited.
Our notions of race have radically changed in my lifetime. A global appreciation for the person of Nelson Mandela and his vision have certainly evolved over the last quarter century as well. An ideal world recognizing the oneness needed to build a just, environmentally sustainable world that Mandela has pointed us towards remains, globally, very much a work in progress on many fronts.
The changes Mandela struggled for involved suffering and hardship. They did not come easily. The changes we face today as we strive for a better world demand the same courage, perseverance and likely suffering witnessed by earlier generations.
John Henry Newman, a 19th-century Roman Catholic cardinal beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, wrote in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845): “It changes with them to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Newman’s reflection can be applied to cherished institutions. They often have to change to remain true to their core beliefs. We similarly may have to change to remain true to ourselves. May we exhibit a Mandela-like passion for change.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact email@example.com.