We were driving through one of the townships of Cape Town on our way to make a grocery drop.
American hip hop on the radio. The ubiquitously sour smell of the location–what you call the townships when you’re from there–in our noses. The skyscrapers of the city bowl receding, replaced by the more modest skyline of shipping containers housing cell phone shops and barbers.
Groceries is a bit of a euphemism. They were groceries on the shelves at Pick & Pay. This was the food that the store couldn’t sell because it was damaged or past expiration, so they donated it to the home for young men where I was volunteering. But it was worse than that. This was the portion of that donation that our cook said was unusable. Our guys picked out the unrotten mangoes, veggies firm enough to withstand a press of the thumb, and the rolls soft enough to be eaten without having to be first be dipped in water. Everything else was taken to a particular spot in the townships where the people knew to look for us.
The bakkie would still be coming to a stop by the time we were surrounded by mommas with plastic containers on their heads, frayed grocery bags in their hands, the little ones nearby with two eager hands ready to grab some food, tuck it under their tiny arms, and run for home. Food is food. The wind whipped through the township, creating a thousand shack band with the corrugated steel walls all going clack clack clack against each other. It was food any American would sniff their noses at; it was dinner to some of the most grateful faces I’ve ever witnessed.
(image | nelsonmandela.org)
I turned to the young man taking the trip with me, Sijeqe. “During all those years of so much poverty and racial discrimination, why didn’t the black people rise up with force?”
“My bru, it was close!” he said. “There’s a phrase for it. It is called The Night of the Long Knives. It was only because of Madiba this did not happen. He’s Jesus,” Sijeqe said, shaking his head and laughing at the magnitude of this truth. “Nelson Mandela was Jesus.”
Mandela’s grace and effusive ethic of forgiveness saved tens of thousands of lives, I have no doubt. He heralded a golden era of racial justice in the eyes of the law in South Africa, yes. But social and economic justice have been much slower to arrive. According to the Wall Street Journal, two-thirds of South Africans under the age of 25 can’t find work. That is a lot of young men and women with idle time, and an obvious target in wealthy whites, should they look to project their anger and frustration outward.
Mandela taught them to love instead. And they have. The standing level of gratitude of the average South African born into poverty I’ve known unquestionably trumps the gratefulness I see around me in America. It’s amazing, the contentment that can be found in a humble gratitude for the blessings you already have, rather than a focus on what would you want if you could have it all.
In yoga, this value that guided Mandela is known as ahimsa. From The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (130):
When the vow of ahimsa is established in someone, all enmity ceases in his or her presence because that person emits harmonous vibrations. If two people who have enmity between them come to such a person, they will temporarily forget it. That is the benefit of ahimsa.
Mandela was a generator of ahimsa as powerful as the largest coal plant in the country, but no one benefited from his grace more than he himself did. The funny thing about ahimsa is that, though the sentiment is Godly, it is also self-interested. To seek retribution is to do harm, even if justifiable harm. From The New Yorker:
(Mandela) believed in the redemptive power of forgiveness. But he also recognized that it was the only route that lay between civil war and the mass exodus of the moneyed, educated class of white people who were integral to the economy.
Nelson Mandela might not have been the second coming of Jesus, but he was magic. The thing is, though, it’s a magic within us all. Mandela was special, but do we not all have access to the choice of forgiveness in our lives? A paradigm of ahimsa waits for us. It lessens the burden of those who have harmed us, sure, but it also saves ourselves from a victim’s mentality that holds so many of us hostage.
Most of the young men I worked with at Beth Uriel over that 9 months or so either never knew their dads, or their dads were in jail, or addicts, or refused to acknowledge their son’s existence. In Madiba they all found a father to use as a role model. Even as so many in that country still starve, still can’t find work, still know that hope of a middle class lifestyle is more of a lie than the truth, they still smile, and they still forgive a system it would be so easy to believe never offered them a chance to begin with.
This is one of my favorite quotes from Mandela. I think it’s one we can all relate to, whether or not we’ve known true poverty or endured a fraction of what he did.
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
The magic of Mandela is in us all. We just have to choose to forgive those in our own lives to activate it.