Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

mandela_long_walk_to_freedom_xlgby Landon Eckhardt

Prior to viewing the just-released feature film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, I knew only a little of Nelson Mandela's story and his work in leading South Africa out of apartheid.  I had seen the 2009 film Invictus, which portrays his work in uniting the country through the national rugby team during his term as president, and I'd greatly enjoyed it. But Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was no mere feel-good movie. It grew in me great empathy for all South Africans, both black and white.  The film takes both the characters and the viewers on a journey of liberation—from violence to nonviolent social action, from anger to forgiveness.

One of the most disturbing things I learned from this movie was that Mandela had advocated for violence during his early years with the African National Congress (ANC).  It was this violence, coupled with his personal anger, that had Mandela directing the ANC to use bomb plots across South Africa in hopes of destroying white colonialism.  These acts of violence did not lead to liberation, however, but rather more oppression for the blacks—and to numerous personal struggles for Mandela.

The movie portrays Mandela's time in prison as a turning point in his own liberation from violence and anger. In fact, this part of the movie is almost salvific! In prison Mandela learns the value of using nonviolence to gain the respect and recognition of the white guards.  One dramatic portrayal of this is Mandela's endless pursuit of dialogue with the guards as he lobbies for trousers instead of shorts for the prisoners. "Trousers are for men," the guards retort. "Shorts are for boys." When the guards finally concede, Mandela and his friends celebrate the trousers as if apartheid itself has ended. When it comes to justice, there are no small victories.

The struggles of Mandela's second wife, Winnie, are also depicted, including her own arrest, abuse in prison, and solitary confinement for 16 months.  It is hard to comprehend how much suffering both husband and wife endured at the same time and in the same atmosphere of colonial oppression and imprisonment, but they emerge from their experiences in very different places.  Mandela is portrayed as a forgiving and nonviolent man seeking reconciliation between blacks and whites, while Winnie is portrayed as a hard-hearted, violent woman seeking solidarity only with the blacks while partaking in a military overthrow of the white colonialists. With their political stances at such opposite corners, their marriage was troubled and eventually ended in divorce.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a must-see for anyone involved in social justice, particularly those focused on liberating the oppressed and marginalized in society.  It is more than a tribute to Nelson Mandela; it is a tribute to Jesus and his social ethics, particularly his commitment to nonviolence and forgiveness. This movie challenges us to look within and question whether we have truly forgiven those who oppress, condemn, or simply oppose us.  For it is the ability to forgive that leads to nonviolent social action.  Without forgiveness, the door is always open towards violence, and where there is violence, oppression—even under the guise of liberation—will reign.

Landon Eckhardt is pursuing an M.Div/MBA in economic development dual degree from Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University.

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