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A Trio of Brothers: Joseph, Mandela, and Lincoln

On hearing of the death of Nelson Mandela, my thoughts immediately went to Tshenuwani Simon Farisani, a clergy acquaintance of mine from South Africa. I got to know him in 1987, when he came to the US to be treated at the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis. He had been repeatedly imprisoned and tortured, and was released to come to the US only as a result of international pressure, particularly from his Lutheran colleagues. Later that year, he gave a statement to the ANC and their special committee on the Day of Solidarity with South African Political Prisoners. His words, in part, were these:

I shall not present my situation as if I were the only person who had been detained in South Africa but create the context in which I was detained and in which many others were detained. I am the Dean and Deputy Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in southern Africa. . . .

I know what I am talking about. I have been engaged in dialogue with Government people in South Africa; I have tried to work on reconciliation and conversion as a Dean and Deputy Bishop of the Church. Suffice it to say that every time the Government of South Africa has kicked me and my fellow church leaders in the nose; we are still bleeding from those kicks. I do not need slogans. I need not exaggerate the evils of Hitler`s heirs [which he had just detailed].

I know what I am talking about. I have been uprooted, with my community, on three occasions in my short life of 40 years: in 1951, 1959 and 1961, and another attempt was made in 1977 or 1978. I have worked as a labourer, and I know what it is to be exploited. In the South African Students Organization and as national President of the Black People`s Convention – now banned – I came to know how dangerous racism can be. Among those who died in detention or suspicious accidents, some were very close to me: Mohapi; Tiro Abraham; Shezi; Steve Biko, with whom I twice shared a single bed, in Durban, and in 1975 at his home in King William`s Town; Isaac Muofhe, who was killed within 24 hours of his detention in 1981, was my personal and family friend – I baptized him, so to speak, with my own hands.

I myself have been detained four times in the past 10 years and interrogated innumerable times; I have faced plots and threats; I have been tortured almost to the point of death at Pietermaritzburg, Howick, Masisi and Sibasa. On none of those occasions have I been charged in any court of law; in fact, I sued the Government and on 5 March 1984, 10 minutes before the Supreme Court was to convene, it settled out of court, paying me in money for the wrongs they did to my mind and to my human rights.

I experienced psychological and physical torture at Howick; I slept in dirty, smelly cells and on blankets without a bed; I ate dirty, worm-infested food; I had no change of clothing; I was exposed to naked, tortured detainees, men, women and children; for continuous nights and days I was relentlessly interrogated, without food, water, sleep or toilet facilities; I was suspended on a stick between two tables, from a window; I was stood barefoot on blunt nails; I was punched, kicked – and many other things. At the end of that torture at Howick, I had to receive extensive medical attention.

At Masisi I was tortured very, very badly. I was beaten, banged against the wall, kicked on my private parts and hooded and blinded; electrical shocks were applied to my ears, thighs, toes and genitals.

The consequences have been many. I have lost my teeth, and I have scars all over my body. During my second detention I had to drink water from the toilet. The third detention was terrible. I had swelling of the head and bloodied eyes, nose and lips, gaping wounds on my body and knees, broken ribs. I was placed twice in the Madimbo military base hospital, twice at Donald Frazer Hospital; three times in Tshilidzini Hospital, where I spent 106 days under police guard. After my release I had to go to Wynberg Medical Centre, Groote Schur Hospital and Victoria Hospital for specialist care and checkups. The fourth detention started in November 1986; I was only released on 30 January this year. What happened during this detention? I had to go on a hunger strike for 30 days to demand my release; I had 13 visits to hospital. And at the end of it all I was released, uncharged but badly damaged, psychologically and physically.

I met Farisani earlier that year, while he was being treated, and in the course of one of our conversations, one of my friends asked him, “If the apartheid regime came down tomorrow, what would you — the black Africans of South Africa — want to say to the white people of South Africa?” Farisani paused, then replied with something like this: “Here in the US, your civil rights movement often invoked the image of Moses and Pharaoh — ‘Let my people go!’ For us, we look not to the story of Moses but the story of Joseph. He was envied by his older brothers, beaten and sold into slavery, oppressed as a slave and unjustly imprisoned, and yet he managed to rise to a position of power. When a famine hit, his brothers came for food but did not immediately recognize him. When he revealed himself, they were terrified because of what they had done to him and they feared what he would do now to exact revenge. Instead pronouncing revenge, Joseph spoke one very powerful sentence to them: ‘I am your brother, Joseph.’ That is the word I would hope would be spoken when apartheid comes to an end. We are your brothers, whom you sold into slavery, but what you intended for evil, God has used for good.”

“I am your brother.” This, from someone who had barely survived being tortured by the apartheid regime.

I can’t help but connect Farisani and Mandela today, because Farisani’s words seem to me to have been exactly what took place once Mandela was released and democracy came to South Africa.

Mandela knew the difference between fighting for justice and exacting revenge. He was incredibly firm in the former, and when given the opportunity, he was equally firm in rejecting the latter. While in prison, Mandela was offered various chances to minimize the pain of his confinement, or to be released, if he would make statements that the regime put forward. Each time, he refused. When he finally negotiated his release with F. W. de Klerk, it was on Mandela’s terms. The ban on the ANC was lifted, and Mandela himself was released with no restrictions placed upon him, and efforts at full freedom for all South Africans continued. When the first free elections were held, and Mandela elected president, he lived and led in the same way — firmly working for justice, and just as firmly renouncing revenge.

Today, at Mandela’s passing, I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, where Lincoln proposed exactly this kind of result at the end of the US civil war. He did not sugar-coat the pains of war, but refused to engage in revenge. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Lincoln was struck down before he could work to heal the wounds of his nation, but Mandela was not, and South Africa — and the world — is the better off for it.

In the mid-1980s, the famous South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela wrote an anti-apartheid anthem “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)” which he performed as part of the international campaign to release Mandela.


Release Nelson Mandela!
Bring him back home to Soweto
I want to see him walking down the streets
of South Africa

Mandela is home indeed, and walks the streets of every city and town and village of South Africa. Rest in peace, my brother. Rest in peace.


Photo h/t to Symphony of Love and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.