Belfast Telegraph

The question is: Where is our own Nelson Mandela?

By Alf McCreary

The death of Nelson Mandela marks the end of a remarkable life which demonstrated how the forgiveness of one man can help rebuild a deeply divided nation.

He was born in 1918 at Mvezo in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa and, ironically, his tribal name Rolihlahla meant 'Trouble-maker' but he was later given his English name Nelson by a teacher in a mission school run by Methodists.

Nelson Mandela became a Methodist himself, and he joined the long line of peacemakers from that noble religious tradition, including our own Gordon Wilson from Enniskillen.

I would like to think that it was part of Mandela's early exposure to the best of Christianity that made him choose the path to bridge-building after spending nearly 27 years in prison.

I once watched him on television when he was asked if he was bitter about his captors and former political opponents.

He replied: "I could be, but I have not chosen to go down that road. My time is short and I have much more important things to do."

This altruism was impressive, but Mandela had many years to work out a new and practical political strategy in the heat and hard labour of his imprisonment on Robben Island.

Some years ago, I visited Robben Island with my wife when we were on a trip to South Africa, and I was troubled by the sheer bleakness of Mandela's former prison.

However, I was also impressed by the guide, who had been part of the struggle against apartheid. He also talked without bitterness about the past, and by doing so, he was even more impressive.

Since then, I have thought many times about our own situation, and I still feel that if the Maze Peace Centre was handled properly, it need not be a "shrine to terrorism" as its misguided opponents claim.

Mandela, of course, also resorted to violence, and in the eyes of the South African state, he was regarded as a terrorist. His journey towards a peaceful solution was long and painful, and it was not a rose-tinted vision which could prove to be impractical.

So this 'terrorist'-come-peacemaker led his country to a kind of peace, which is not yet complete but which is much better than the past. This fits exactly our own situation, and the obvious question is: "Where is our own Nelson Mandela?"

Earlier I mentioned Gordon Wilson, and that is not too fanciful a comparison in our own context. Gordon initially did not forgive those who killed his daughter Marie and others in the Enniskillen cenotaph bomb.

He said that he bore "no ill-will". I knew him well, and I am certain that he prayed for his daughters killers every night, and at the end he did forgive them.

It is this kind of noble human behaviour in the face of terrible hardships which Mandela also symbolised and it is something we badly need in Northern Ireland at this time.

Our politicians, with all their faults, have produced a peace process, against all the odds. It faces huge challenges but what it needs most of all is the respect of both sides for one another, and an ability to move forward from the past.

There is no 'Protestant' blood, no 'Catholic' blood, but only human beings on both sides who suffer just as badly as one another. We must not allow our past to paralyse our present and poison out future.

Nelson Mandela, and others nearer home like Gordon Wilson, showed the way. In the end, we have no choice but to follow them.

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