I’ve traveled to South Africa twice—once in conjunction with a 11 week summer mission to Swaziland in 1992 and then for a Habitat for Humanity Jimmy Carter Work Project with the National Council of Churches in 2002. South Africa has a special place in my heart, so I was saddened to learn yesterday of Nelson Mandela’s death.
He fought tirelessly for equality and justice. I cannot fathom how the years in prison didn’t make him hardened, except maybe faith in God and a trust that eventually justice would be realized.
As part of my trip in 2002, our group began in Johannesburg. We toured many areas and visited churches and HIV homes. We also went to Soweto. I wrote reflections of our trip for the NCC website, and below is one I did just after our time in Soweto. We eventually traveled to Durban for our blitz build on a site that had once been owned by black South Africans, had been seized during the apartheid and had been reclaimed by Habitat for affordable housing.
I give thanks for the life of Nelson Mandela, for all he did to respect the dignity of every human being. His life will live on in the many children of South Africa, those who will lead us forward into greater respect and acceptance of others.
My thoughts from that day over 11 years ago….
We headed out of town after a tour of downtown Johannesburg. A few miles out, our bus stopped on the side of the road above a shantytown – a hodge-podge collection of one-room homes made by the poorest of the poor. The houses were made of wood, tin, plastic and many other materials. We were entering into Soweto, the large black township in South Africa just outside of Johannesburg.
Soweto was home to Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They didn’t live in this shantytown but in small homes further up in Soweto. Soweto is home to over four million black South Africans. It makes up half of the population of Johannesburg.
I looked down at the homes that were no bigger than my bedroom. Upwards of twenty people share that living space. There were too many homes to count. I could see a single water faucet from our vantage point and I wondered how many families used it.
We continued our bus tour, passing by open markets; Freedom Square, where the ANC held gatherings, a group of children playing soccer, many people walking on the side of the road. We stopped at the Hector Peterson Memorial which commemorates a 12-year-old student shot by the police in 1976. He had joined other students in a peaceful demonstration against the use of Afrikaans as the institutional language at the school. A picture of his contorted, bloody body being carried by another student became a symbol of the injustice experienced by the blacks and gave rise to the anti-apartheid movement.
We stopped on a street to see the home of Winnie and Nelson Mandela – a small four-room house where Winnie lived during much of the time Nelson Mandela was in prison. A block further down on the same street sits the home of Desmond Tutu. As we looked on this street where two Nobel Prize winners had lived children gathered for us to take a picture of them near Mandela’s house.
I look at the faces of the children in my camera viewfinder wondering if any of them will be a Nobel Prize winner. Or the children I saw at the shantytown. Or the ones I saw playing soccer. Will one of them be the next Nelson or Desmond? Will they rise above the poverty, the injustice, the crime to make this world a better place?
How can they accomplish this unless someone gives them hope? How can they unless a mother or a grandfather or a pastor or someone else tells them that they can make a difference? How can they unless someone believes in them?
I snap my pictures of the children, wave my goodbyes and say a prayer. And even though the Habitat for Humanity build is in Durban I pray that the work we do might provide enough hope for even one child to want to make the world a more peaceful place.
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