The following piece by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of South Africa was published on June 23, 2013. Nelson Mandela is often referred to with deep reverence and affection by his Xhosa tribal name, “Madiba.” Very often he is called “Father of the Nation.”
Death: It’s Time to Break the Taboo
When I was a child, certain subjects were never discussed. Adults might make guarded references, in oblique terms, when they thought the children weren’t listening. And if we dared even to hint at the issue, we’d probably earn ourselves a clap round the ear. There was no open, honest discussion, even though we all knew, and we all knew that we knew, this stuff existed. Local scandals were just such subjects. There were huge no-go areas across most topics associated with sex. Nowadays, it seems sex is everywhere, while death is the subject we find increasingly difficult to discuss openly.
Madiba’s latest spell in the hospital has had us once again dancing around the subject, though I was glad to see that alongside our heartfelt prayers for his recovery, there is also growing acceptance that he cannot go on for ever, and calls that we must learn to let him go. This is both good and necessary, for Madiba’s sake and for ours. In fact, a more honest attitude to our own mortality helps us all in the daily business f life.
As a country, we also need to do our grief work. There is much unfinished mourning to be done for the pains and sorrows of apartheid.
And, of course, we also need to do our grief work about the inevitable passing of all our great Struggle heroes. Many we have mourned well, letting them go while retaining their legacy. Walter and Albertina Sisulu are two I often recall, and though I miss Ma Sisulu in particular, my emotions are dominated by gratitude for all she was and all she did, and by determination to honour her life through the choices and actions of my own life.
Now the time is drawing close when we must do the same for Madiba. Let us not be afraid to use the ancient words of the Night Prayer – may God grant him a peaceful night, and a good end.
What especially moves me here is the twin call to both mourning and gratitude for Mandela’s life, as gift to the nation, and indeed, to the whole world. And the suggestion that his passing over might help us face death with “a more honest attitude to our own mortality,” a prayerful surrender unto God that “helps us all in the daily business of life.” I’m also struck by the Archbishop’s conviction that we best honor the lives of those we revere in struggles for freedom everywhere, above all, by the choices and actions of our own.
I have never been to South Africa. My long-distance friend Rosemary, a regular contributor to this blog, lives near Simon’s Town, and has recently shared with me some pictures of the country’s extraordinary natural beauty (see below).
But tonight my prayers reach out to all the people of South Africa in thanksgiving for their strength and witness to one of the great freedom struggles of our time. For Madiba and for Steven Biko and for all the hidden ones of South Africa, especially those still struggling to find dignity, happiness, and peace, may God grant you “a peaceful night, and a good end.”