Reflections from South Africa, Part 3: A More Perfect Union

Posted on July 1, 2011

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(I shot this video of the South Cape Children’s Choir when we were in Mossel Bay, South Africa. The name of this song is “Hope for Resolution” by Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory. Click and listen while you read.)

We, the people of South Africa,

Recognise the injustices of our past;

Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;

Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and

Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

-Preamble, South African Constitution

Our Colorado Children’s Chorale performance tour to South Africa this past spring was one that I will never forget. The music, the people, the food, the land, the history and the country itself are all things that I hope to learn more about before I pass from this life. I’ve already shared with you some of my reflections from the experience (links at the bottom of this post if you missed ’em), but I haven’t talked yet about what may have been the most important thing I took away from my time in South Africa: the power of reconciliation.

When you learn about South Africa’s more recent history, their constitution and their democratic ideals, as an American you notice one thing very quickly: it all sounds very familiar. It sounds a lot like the ideals that we hold so dear here in The States, but with one glaring difference: in South Africa, they recognize the injustices of the past. In fact, as you can see above, it’s the first order of business. In America, all too often I think we’d rather sweep our injustices under the rug instead of confront them and deal with them the way that deep down we know we should.

But look at South Africa:

We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to 

  • Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
  • Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
  • Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
  • Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.  
-Preamble, South African Constitution

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first president in the so-called “New South Africa” spent a huge chunk of his life in prison for no good reason under Apartheid’s rule. Yet when Mandela was finally released from prison and Apartheid was abolished, his message was still one of peace and non-violence. After being done dirty for nearly 30 years, vengeance was not on his agenda. Had he sought to avenge the misdeeds of the past on behalf of his people, South Africa would be a very different (and probably exponentially more violent) place than it is today. Instead, he chose to heal the land and its people through forgiveness and reconciliation. And on a musical note, instead of banning the old Afrikaaner version of the South African National Anthem (like the Apartheid regime had done to the Zulu version when it came into power), Mandela and company chose musical reconciliation and incorporated the Afrikaaner anthem into the New South African version that began with the banned Zulu hymn, and finished it off with an English section in an effort to be inclusive even of those that had wronged the black South Africans for so many generations. Beautiful.

When I was in the Apartheid Museum in Cape Town with the kids I was responsible for chaperoning (aka my “staff group”), one of my kids was offended when she learned that F.W. de Clerk, after all of the terrible things he said/did/endorsed/looked the other way on during the Apartheid regime, de Clerk still received a Nobel Peace Prize right along side the real hero of the New South Africa, Nelson Mandela. But while she had a hard time justifying it, she ultimately got the picture.

‘Cause here’s the thing about healing divisions and forgiveness: it means both sides make amends no matter how horrendous the sin might be. Reconciliation doesn’t just mean inviting the Grinch over for Christmas dinner; it means letting him carve the roast beast if and when he shows up. And during our time in South Africa, as I tried to juxtapose these noble ideals of reconciliation against breaking news that “we” had found and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan after hunting him down for nearly 10 years for what he and his minions did to us, I felt sick to my stomach. We got our guy, but we sure took the low road to get him. Reconciliation was never our goal; getting even was. Instead of recognizing the injustices of the past and finding ways to heal them like the South Africans were trying to do, we opened up new wounds in our own hearts and in the Middle East while the old wounds remained inflamed and infected. So much for Al-Qaeda cutting the roast beast at my Christmas dinner any time soon, or me cutting the roast beast in Pakistan after Ramadan. For now, I’ll have to settle for being happy and thankful if the Jihadists are unable and/or unwilling to volley the hate back to our side of the court again. Reconciliation postponed indefinitely.

Reconciliation is not something that comes naturally to very many of us. It’s something we have to learn how to do; something we have to be willing to commit to, even when it hurts us. Easier said than done, I know. But as our tour of South Africa wound down and we learned more about their history and more about Mandela, I was reminded of how often history is on the side of those who choose to make peace. In the moment, we think the radical peacemakers are lunatics because they often end up suffering a great deal for what they believe, but the reality is that the Martin Luther King Jrs, the Mandelas, the Gandhis, and yes the Jesuses of the world are the ones who leave the biggest impression on us. They are the ones who make the biggest impact for good, and they do it with actions that speak far louder than words or guns ever could.

In my opinion, as we reflect on our country’s independence this weekend and all that we love about America, we would do well to spend a few minutes reflecting on South Africa’s independence as well. Be thankful for the peacemakers; past and present, American and not. In this life, there are Grinches all around us. Heck, sometimes we’re the Grinch. But I think what Mandela and South Africa have shown us in word and in deed is that in order to form “a more perfect union,” we must resist the temptation to keep our Grinches at 39-and-a-half-foot-pole’s distance from us. We must invite them to dinner. We must let them cut the roast beast, grill the burgers and light the fireworks. We must reconcile. We must heal.

Happy 4th of July, America. Stay classy and safe this weekend, Planet Earth. God bless ya.

If you would like to read my other two reflections on our Colorado Children’s Chorale performance tour, click here for part 1 and here for part 2. If you want to see pictures and more videos from our performance tour, visit the Colorado Children’s Chorale’s blog at www.choraleconnection.wordpress.com.  I shot and put together all the videos. 🙂

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