Around the World in 80 Days, Day 50: South Africa – The Power of One

My first impression of Afrikaners, formed early in life, came from the 1989 hit Lethal Weapon 2.  South Africa, hitherto largely unknown to me beyond vague recollections of something my history teacher called the Boer War and old episodes of Wild Kingdom, took on a very sinister quality.  The baddies in that movie are blue-eyed, blond-headed men who are essentially Nazis that somehow escaped the Allies’ notice in World War 2.  They are white supremacists and proud of it.  Who better to beat-up, shoot, drown, and chuck these guys off of buildings than the white and black buddy team of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover?

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought white South Africans were racists.  I recall a South African friend of mine, Roland Bernard, telling me about his first visit to America in December 1994 when he was 13-years-old.  An Afrikaner, he arrived at JFK with his parents and sister.  It was with excitement that the family piled into a taxi and headed for Manhattan.  The cabbie, a black man, detected their accents and asked where they were from.  When Roland, good natured and naïve, replied that they were South Africans, the driver stopped the taxi abruptly and demanded the whole family get out.  Bewildered, they were left standing on Robert F. Kennedy Bridge with their luggage stacked at their feet.

Of course, the reality of South Africa and assigning guilt for that country’s past and present struggles is not so, well, black and white.  Bryce Courtenay’s 1989 novel The Power of One, offers a glimpse into the national, ethnic, religious, tribal, and historical complexity of South Africa and, as the title suggests, hints at the astonishing impact a single individual can make on the course of history.

A Brief History of South Africa

In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck and ninety employees of the Dutch East India Company arrived in South Africa.  Their job was to establish a station that would provide fresh provisions of food and water for Dutch ships making their way past the Cape of Good Hope.  Within a decade, Dutch ambitions had expanded to include the colonization of the tip of the African continent.

Due to the new colony’s success, more laborers were needed.  Soon, other settlers began arriving from Germany and Holland, bringing with them slaves from India and Mozambique.  From the start, slavery was integral to this society.  Dutch farmers, known as Boers, began moving inland, encroaching upon lands claimed by the Khoekhoe and Sans tribes.  Conflict was inevitable, and the Boers, possessing superior arms, decimated their rivals.  Over time, the Boers developed a culture that was different from that of The Netherlands and the Dutch settlers living on the Cape.  They called themselves Afrikaners and their language, a variation of Dutch, was Afrikaans.  In 1795, they established their own republic.

In that same year, however, a new tribe landed on the Cape: the British.  Just as the Afrikaners had displaced the Khoekhoes and Sans, the English now displaced Afrikaners and indigenous tribes alike as they fought for control of a territory that had become extremely valuable to the British as a supply point for their own ships on the Indian trade route.  In 1806, the British took possession of the land by treaty and English settlers began arriving by the thousands, alarming Afrikaners.

Worse for the Afrikaners, the British were then engaged in a struggle to end the slave trade.  In 1807, Parliament outlawed the practice in the colonies and, in 1833, they outlawed it altogether.  Deeply resentful of their British masters and their understanding of Christian morality, the Afrikaners, driven out of the land and determined to hold on to their customs and their slaves, began the “Great Trek” to find new land to settle.

Driving northward, the Afrikaners came into conflict with tribes facing a problem not unlike their own.  Another non-indigenous people were sweeping southward with great military efficiency, conquering, killing, and driving all before them: the Zulu.  Other, less powerful, tribes were crushed between the advancing Afrikaner and Zulu armies.  Eventually, after a series of setbacks, the Afrikaners defeated the Zulus and established the Republic of Natalia.  The British, partially under the pretext of ending the slave trade, invaded and annexed Natalia, making it the British Colony of Natal.  Thus, the Afrikaners once again pack-up and trekked northward and proclaimed two new republics, the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (later the Transvaal).

Are you seeing the pattern here?

The British, determined to secure their borders and end the slave trade, found additional motivation to bring the Afrikaners under British rule with the discovery of diamonds and gold in these regions.  By 1898, the British had subdued the last of African tribal independence and in 1902, they concluded a victorious (but bloody) war with the Boers.

But if the Afrikaners lost the war, they eventually won the political settlement.  Outnumbering their British rulers, they gained ascendancy in the government and an Afrikaner nationalist party would increasingly set aside British notions of racial equality for the older Afrikaner ways.  By 1948, apartheid, a radical system of racial segregation, was in place.  It required a rigid separation of the races: whites, “coloreds” (people of white and black parentage), blacks, and Asians (primarily Indians) all had to carry racial identity cards, but only whites had any political or legal standing.  Racial purity was enforced, outlawing sex and marriage between the races.  And only whites could vote.

This system remained in place until one extraordinary man walked onto history’s stage:

Nelson Mandela.

If ever men are born to fulfill a specific mission—Martin Luther, Lincoln, Churchill—surely Nelson Mandela was one of them.  He set himself to the destruction of apartheid.  Through a life of hardship, almost constant conflict, and 27 years of imprisonment, it is remarkable that Mandela never lost sight of this objective.  On the contrary, Mandela was a man of singular vision.  In 1964, while standing in the dock and having just been given a sentence of life imprisonment, Mandela addressed the injustices of this sentence and of apartheid:

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Most remarkable, however, is the fact that once he achieved his goal and gained political power with his election as president of South Africa in 1994, he did not embark on a path of revenge.  He might well have done so, following the examples set by other political prisoners of the twentieth century—Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Castro.  What made Mandela different?  Was it merely a matter of temperament or was there something else at work in this man who exhibited such rare restraint?

According to Mandela, it was his father, a minor chieftain and believer in pagan African religion, who gave him his stubborn, rebellious nature.  But it was his mother, a devout Christian, who molded his character.  She had her son baptized a Methodist and educated at a Methodist school.  It is generally accepted that Mandela was a Christian, but apart from the eternal residence of his soul, whether or not he was is, for our purposes anyway, irrelevant.  Why?  Because it is quite clear that, Christian or not, Mandela’s moral outlook was unquestionably shaped by that religion.  Throughout his life, he would both attend and teach Sunday school—even while imprisoned.  But it was as a child that Mandela recognized the power of the Christian creed.

In his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote:

“The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church.”

Hardly a politically correct statement then, and even less so now, it is nonetheless true.  Mandela—who had every opportunity to become a dictator in the mold of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe—promised to serve only one term.  A promise he would fulfill.  Urged by members of his own political party to take revenge on their former white oppressors, Mandela flatly refused, and instead insisted on forgiveness and reconciliation.  Those are core Christian principles.  Such things are conveniently forgotten in the narratives of other great reformers: William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even Gandhi, who, though Hindu, based his program of non-violent resistance on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

But what of Mandela’s influence today?

Let us return to New York City and Robert Kennedy Bridge.  What the cabbie didn’t know about the 13-year old boy he unceremoniously kicked to the curb on that cold December day in 1994, is that this boy would twice be given the honor of meeting Nelson Mandela as a national champion rugby player and team captain.  Recollecting these meetings, Roland Bernard told me:

“Mandela was one of those figures who enters the room and you feel it.  He had an amazing presence.  That strange aura he carried … Humility and compassion emanated from him.  It may sound like a Hollywood, Disney-like characterization, but anyone who ever had the privilege of meeting this amazing man will tell you it is true.  His impact is still felt [in South Africa].”

Today, because the successors of Mandela have little respect for his vision of a national unity based on forgiveness, reconciliation, and the common good, South Africa has slipped back into tribalism, violence, and human degradation.  Nevertheless, Mandela’s vision lives on in people like Roland.  Those brief encounters with Mandela profoundly affected the young rugby star who, by lineage, should have been Mandela’s enemy.  Instead, Roland, who now lives in comfortable retirement in Europe after a successful professional career there, became a convert to Christianity.  As with Mandela, he feels strongly that the tenets of that faith require him to make a difference in this world before moving on to the next.  Consequently, he has decided to return to his native South Africa in hopes that he might play some small role in fulfilling the great reformer’s dream:

“I believe that the Lord will use South Africa mightily in the future as a proverbial beacon of light for His Kingdom.  I am going back to be part of that, to be part of the difference this world so badly needs—and South Africa needs.”

Hearing my friend say this, I was reminded of something David Livingstone, another one of Africa’s great ambassadors, said as he contemplated a similarly daunting task:

“I have found that I have no unusual endowments of intellect, but this day I resolve that I will be an uncommon Christian.”

This is the Power of One.


South Africa star rating: 5/10

This rating is based on South Africa’s present social and political strife, rapidly rising violent crime, and extraordinary prevalence of HIV and high unemployment.  Let’s give Roland a decade and reevaluate!