Recollections of Mandela by a native of South Africa
Jan 8, 2014

REFLECTIONS In this file photo, Peter Church, a native South African and former Episcopal priest who now attends First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, is at an annual prayer breakfast in 2011 with Vaughn McLaughlin, who leads The Potter’s House. File photo by Joni B. Hannigan
JACKSONVILLE (FBW)—Eighty-one-year-old South African native Peter Church well remembers the struggle over apartheid that landed Nelson Mandela in an isolated jail cell for 27 years. 

Church, who has been a driving force behind a Northeast Florida ecumenical prayer movement and attends Jacksonville’s First Baptist Church, says there is still a “strong [racial] divide” in South Africa—much like that which America faces.

And despite being a country that has been called home to one of the most beautiful cities in the world–Cape Town–South Africa is now known as the rape capital of the world, a place where daylight crime and murders have rapidly increased in the past decade, where the largest HIV population resides, and where the minority white population lives in the big cities in guarded enclosures, Church told Florida Baptist Witness.

“The truth is not pretty,” he said. “But yes, the nation has changed.” 

Gone is the officially legislatively mandated racial segregation that limited the rights of the majority black inhabitants. But while the playing field has created opportunities for all peoples in various capacities throughout all aspects of life, the country has also begun to pull away from its once strong faith.

“At its heart, and on the streets, it’s terrible,” Church said.

Like in America, over the years as the population has grown more disconnected from the church, from faith, what has increased is “all of the evils that come with godlessness,” Church said.

Church was born in Cape Town and grew up in Johannesburg. He came to the United States to study in 1961 and returned to South Africa in 1963, just before Mandela pled guilty to 156 acts of violence and in 1964 was sentenced to life in prison.

The South African leader was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July, 1918, into the Madiba clan in the small village of Mvezo in Transkei, South Africa. His teacher at the primary school Mandela attended named him “Nelson” in accordance with a custom to give all school children Christian names. 

His comments to the court in 1964 that sentenced him to life in prison for his work to abolish apartheid are oft quoted.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities,” Mandela told the court. “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela served over 27 years in prison, initially at Robben Island, and then later in two other prisons. After constant conflicts, bombings and major uprisings, he was released in 1990 by South African President F.W. de Klerk whom he worked to abolish apartheid. Mandela was elected as South Africa’s president in 1994. Both Mandela and de Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

“His reformation and attitude saved a national blood bath,” Church remembers. “He was a shining example of tolerance and forgiveness. He could have raised any army of people to vindicate him—but he didn’t—instead he gave a gift of reconciliation to South Africa.”

Church remembers Mandela as a “charismatic and influential leader, an icon of the black population who was held up as a hero who had a very, very strong following.”

Thoughtfully, Church, who still visits South Africa although he became a U.S. citizen in 1988, said he remembers Mandela “wasn’t a rockstar kind of a charismatic,” but was held in high regard because of his long prison sentence.

“He came out almost a different man,” Church said, noting, “probably 27 years in prison would make a change in any man’s life.” 

You must be login before you can leave a comment. Click here to Register if you are a new user.