“Am I my brother’s keeper?” How Nelson Mandela Helped South Africa Find Peace

At the Huffington Post my friend Jimmy McCarty offers a thoughtful contrast between Egypt, which has seen its effort at democracy collapse in violence and chaos, and South Africa, which almost miraculously emerged from generations of racism, division and strife to become a democratic, multiracial, and relatively stable society.

At least one key difference, he suggests, is the role of South Africa’s first ever black president Nelson Mandela, who at age 95, has been in the hospital for the past two months. McCarty writes,

As the world watches the unfolding events in the streets of Egypt with a nervous gaze and watches the events in a South African hospital room with mournful admiration it is easy forget that it was not too long ago that South Africa was a country that political pundits were sure was going to devolve into a horribly bloody civil war (not unlike the concerns many have about Egypt today).

How did South Africa’s miracle happen? It was not by accident. And, though there may have been divine intervention, it was not “out of nowhere.” South Africa avoided civil war and established a stable, though always tenuous and in-process, democracy because its leaders, especially Mandela, were able to cast a vision of social life capable of sustaining a lasting peace. That vision can be summed up in the phrase, “We are each other’s keepers.”

McCarty goes on to outline the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, the first murder in recorded history. When God confronted Cain about Abel’s whereabouts, Cain responded with the famous dismissal, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Though not explicitly stated, we are taught in this story that we are, indeed, to be one another’s keepers. We are responsible for our fellow humans. Our own well-being is intimately tied to the well-being of our siblings, our neighbors, and even our enemies. We diminish our very own humanity when we do not act as each other’s “keepers.”

Nelson Mandela understood this, McCarty, points out. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes,

Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me. It was during those long and lonely years [in the struggle against apartheid and in the 27 years he was imprisoned at Robben Island] that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed … I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity … For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

It was based on this conviction that Mandela led South Africa in a process of forgiveness and reconciliation that is unparalleled in the events of the 20th Century.

You can read McCarty’s whole article here. You can read his thoughtful blog here.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on August 20, 2013, in democracy, International Affairs, Racism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on “Am I my brother’s keeper?” How Nelson Mandela Helped South Africa Find Peace.

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