FW de Klerk

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

As I get older I discover that people and events that were crucial to my own experience and understanding of the world are unknown to a younger generation. I guess that the death of FW de Klerk fits in that category.

For my generation the curse of Apartheid and the cry for the liberation of oppressed people rang out from South Africa. Shaped by a particular Christian theology and an ideological commitment to a particular form of the nation state, white Afrikaaners fought to defend the land they dominated. Just as many of us caught up in the Cold War could not envisage how change might come, so did the South African regime seem impregnable.

Yet, change can come quickly. When de Klerk succeeded PW Botha as head of the National Party in 1989 few would have imagined what was to follow. This ideologically conservative white man recognised that the need for peace and justice transcended even deeply-held and culturally-entrenched worldviews. Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, multiracial elections took place in 1994, Mandela became President … but de Klerk continued to serve with him as a Vice-President.

I think I learn two things from this remarkable transition of power and culture: the first is about what I would call ‘repentance’; the second is about the nature and demands of leadership.

The word ‘repentance’ comes from a Greek verb meaning ‘to change your mind’. It basically means changing the way I look at God, the world and us in order to change the way I see God, the world and us in order to change the way I think about God, the world and us in order to change the way I live in the world with God and everyone else. It takes immense courage to repent – not least because, especially for a leading politician, this will invite abuse, opprobrium, and charges of betrayal. But, integrity and wisdom sometimes demand such courage. Christian theology certainly does.

Leadership is not for the romantic. At the heart of good leadership lie the virtues of ethical integrity and moral courage. In dismantling not only a political culture, but also a theologically underpinned cultural construct, de Klerk challenged the very foundational myths of a people … and did so knowing there might be a high price to pay.

He apologised for the effects of Apartheid, but not for Apartheid itself. He wasn’t perfect; but, given that leadership has to be exercised by real, complex and conflicted human beings, he had the courage to repent in action and open the door to a new generation and a new, more just world.

His death might evoke mixed memories for some. But repentance and courageous leadership should not be ignored.

One of the things I will never forget is the sound of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela singing ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ at the Mandela 70th Birthday concert at Wembley Stadium on 11 June 1988. The man was still in prison and the apartheid regime looked as strong as the Berlin Wall.

A year later the Berlin Wall collapsed and the world changed. But it was another five years before Mandela’s long walk to freedom finally took him through the gates of Robben Island and, in 1994, to the Presidency of his country. When I watched his inauguration I could still hear Makeba’s voice, filled with passion and heroic determination, singing for a different world – a different future.

Nelson Mandela is probably the only man in Africa who could have held his country through the painful and dangerous transition to democracy. He knew the fragility and the potential for explosive violence, but his moral authority – born out of the suffering of injustice – empowered him to hold his people, black and white, through the years of change.

But, it is not just South Africa that owes Mandela a massive and unrepayable debt. He demonstrated to the whole world the possibility for justice, redemption and peaceful change. Along with giants like Desmond Tutu, he defied the nay-sayers of this world and dared to believe that power could be held without corruption, without violence and with a load of fun. He made the Rainbow Nation a reality and subverted the norms of other political leaders by serving for only one term of office and then leaving the scene as promised.

There is probably no one else alive who now carries the affection and moral authority of Nelson Mandela. In his death he not only holds a silent mirror to an often corrupt world, but still beckons the world to believe in and give its life for peace, justice and generosity.

And there’s the rub. He is revered and held to acclaim by people across the globe, but often by people who wish to claim virtue by association rather than emulation. Mandela took the Dutch Reformed theology of his oppressors seriously and resolved to out-do them when it came to generosity, grace and forgiveness. On accepting the presidency of South Africa he resolved to serve only a single term – and stuck to it. He refused to open the doors (of language as well as practice) to revenge or the sort of justice that is merely self-referential or self-aggrandizing. He declined the temptations of power and adulation in order to offer the world a different model of servanthood.

All this stands in stark contrast to those who position themselves to stand in his reflected glory, but without the pain, the cost, the integrity or the generosity. Robert Mugabe clings on to power at the expense not of his own blood, but of that of thousands of his people. And he is not alone. Mugabe speaks of ‘his people’ as a possession – a commodity – whereas Mandela spoke of ‘his people’ as a gift to be treasured and a people to be served. The contrast is clear to almost everyone.

Since his death millions of words have been spoken and written about him. The Twittersphere is alive with quotations from his writings, speeches and interviews. His death is one of those unique moments when just about every human being alive at this moment is caught up with the impact of this particular passing. But, my question is a hard one: how serious are we who quote him and revere him about emulating him and taking his example seriously? Forgiveness is easy to admire in someone else, but very hard to give when it is I who pays the price.

Clearly, it is easier to admire him than it is to live like him – justice with mercy, hope with realism, generosity with responsibility. He liberated his oppressors by forgiving them – if we really take him seriously, then we must also ask how we can liberate our 'oppressors' or opponents? Not to face these hard personal and social questions is to recognize that we are merely indulging in sentiment about a man whose legend has outstripped his real challenge to a bleeding world.

Mandela never claimed to be a saint – he just kept trying his best … with a humility that was shocking and moving in equal measure. Are those who revere him ready today resolutely to make a difference in the small things of their own life in their own place? As the great man once said, “We must use time wisely and forever realise that the time is always ripe to do right.” Tomorrow is simply another today. The challenge does not go away and we cannot – if we utter words of admiration today – duck the opportunity today to do right.

Much more could be said about Nelson Mandela – and, no doubt, much more will be said. Yet, most of us will realize also that words are really inadequate to celebrate such a man. Perhaps silent reflection (and a re-reading of his books and speeches) would be a more adequate response to his demise. I thank God for him – the God in whom Mandela trusted and whose self-giving in Jesus Christ so fired his imagination. Theology did not dwell in some ‘spiritual’ compartment of his intellect, but shaped his soul, inspired his vision and strengthened his will. His political vision did not appear from a vacuum, but was forged by the shaping (through experience, study, intellectual rigour and attention to spirituality) of a worldview that looks frighteningly like that of the Old Testament prophets and reflects the face of the Carpenter from Nazareth.

So, I will conclude.

At Wembley in 1988 Sting sang ‘They dance alone’. Mandela didn’t. And he showed us that we dance better together than in fearful isolation. May he rest in peace.

(This was commissioned to appear in the Yorkshire Post on Saturday 7 December 2013.)


Nelson Mandela is dead.

Words are inadequate to celebrate such a man.

He is being quoted extensively across the Twittersphere.

If only those who admire, revere and quote him could emulate him. It is easier to admire him than it is to live like him – justice with mercy, hope with realism, generosity with responsibility. He liberated his oppressors by forgiving them – if we really take him seriously, we must ask how we can liberate our 'oppressors' or opponents? Easy to admire, hard to do.

I wrote and recorded an obituary for the great man several years ago. I will post it in a day or two (once I know if it has been used by the BBC.

I have just done this morning’s Pause for Thought on the BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Show. I probably should have done something on ‘leap year’, but I did it on ‘stories’ instead.

Having been reading the Bible for a very long time now, I often wondered why Jesus chose to talk in images and with stories, rather than making points and telling people to agree with them. I used to think it was just a local cultural preference of his time, but I there’s actually something deeper going on – something that nagged away at me during the last week as we heard about Nelson Mandela and Marie Colvin.

Mandela went into hospital and the world waited to see what would happen. Clearly, there’s nothing unusual about an old man whose health is failing. But this isn’t just any old man. This one has become a global icon of selfless reconciliation – a man who suffered for three decades, but emerged as one of the strongest men in the world, enabling South Africa and other countries to look for radically new ways of behaving. Behind the name of the man is a story that moves us deeply in our hearts and our imaginations.

Then the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin was killed in Syria whilst trying to tell a story – not of dry political arguments or power struggles, but illustrating these with stories of real women and children, real people being brutalised, defenceless people in an ordinary place being subjected to the merciless power of heavy weaponry… and those who control it.

As I have observed elsewhere, she is a fantastic example of good journalism. Marie Colvin put herself in danger in order that the wider world might see and hear how the decisions of others – the powermongers of this world – impact the lives of people like us. And it is that power of storytelling that gets into our heads and scratches away at our imagination.

Which is why, I think, Jesus taught with stories and parables and pictures. Words and statements just go in and get accepted or rejected. Stories scratch away and tease us until we grapple with what they are all about.

He once told a story about a man wanting to build a tower and asked if he would begin without first counting the cost. Mandela and Colvin certainly counted the cost of their commitment. And their stories just won’t let us go.

So, nothing too deep there. Something that will no doubt be appreciated by the Sunday Times which, pleasingly but surprisingly, highlighted my Lent address on BBC Radio 4 tonight as their ‘Pick of the Day’ for today. The caption praised me with faint damnation – something about the Lent talk showing more theological depth than is evident in my ‘inveterate blogging’. Interesting, then, that nothing in the Lent address has not appeared at some point in blog posts here. Maybe I should start using longer words…