I really don’t know much about Nelson Mandela, apart from what I have read of him in the past few days referring to his 70th birthday, and – spasmodically – over the years. I am not sure about what his philosophy is or whether or not I would agree with his political ideals. But I cannot withhold my admiration of a man who has spent ore than a quarter of a century in prison because he refused to sign his name to what he himself termed “a unilateral pact of non-violence.” In other words, “You can have your freedom provided you toe the white line.”
On April 20, 1964, he made his famous “I am prepared to die…” speech from the dock. That was the last time he was heard in public! He was not asked to die. But I believe he has proved the truth of his words by accepting imprisonment – mostly in isolation – for more than 25 years. He had lived with Winnie Mandela for only two years before being imprisoned.
Who is Nelson Mandela?
His full name is Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. He was born on July 18, 1918, in the Transkei regions of Eastern Cape. He is related to the paramount chiefs of Tembuland. But in his early twenties, Nelson renounced hereditary tribal rights and prepared for a legal career. He obtained a degree in law from the University of South Africa. Ten years later, he formed a legal firm with Oliver Tambo, the current president of the African national Congress. During their years of law practice they defended hundreds of Africans charged under the Apartheid Laws. In 1952, Mandela, who had proved that he possessed strong leadership qualities, was elected President of the Transvaal branch of the ANC and National Deputy President. From that day on, he was subjected to constant “banning orders” in attempts to restrain his political activities.
The ANC outlawed
On March 21, 1960, the Sharpville Massacre, which shocked the world, occurred. Sixty-nine people were shot by the government forces during a peaceful protest against Pass Laws. A state of emergency followed. The ANC was banned. Mandela organized a “three day stay at home” to protest the establishment of the new White Republic of South Africa. He was arrested and charged with “preparing to overthrow the Apartheid State.” On June 12, 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Why am I writing this story?
The reader might ask the question. Where does it fit into a pro-life paper? I think it is because somewhere very deep down in my psyche, I have a tremendous admiration for people who will not sign away their principles and are prepared to pay the price – even unto death! Such people are badly needed today and they seem to be in short supply, particularly in the political sphere. Signing one’s name means delivering oneself. When people sign cheques or covenants or contracts, we expect them to deliver. Those who refuse to honour the signature are universally held in contempt in every society. We speak of a person having “a good name” or a “bad name.” Perhaps the greatest insult that could be offered to anyone is to say that “his signature is not worth the paper on which it is written.”
Counter wise, the refusal to sign a document is a most eloquent way of saying, “I will not sell myself at any price.” Even if I do not agree with the religion, the politics or the ideals of such a one, I cannot withhold this assessment. “There stands a man.” One who gave His life for His principles expressed it thus, “Greater love than this no man hath…”
Others who would not sign
Looking back down the arches of the years we find many others who would not sign – either physically or symbolically. But they are always in the minority and usually considered the “fools” of society. One that springs to mind is Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204). Wife of two kings and mother of three – including Richard the Lion Hearted – she must be the original feminist. Because of her support for her sons in their revolt against their father, King Henry II of England, her husband, kept her in humiliating captivity for sixteen years. On one occasion he sent her a document saying that she would support him against their sons. In an accompanying note, he wrote, “You hold the key to your freedom. It is your signature to this document.” Eleanor’s reply was terse and to the point, “I will not sign.” She remained in captivity until the death of Henry. At a political level, I don’t know whether she was right or wrong, but on a personal level, I can only say, “Hats off to Eleanor.”
Thomas More (1477-1535)
A leap of three hundred years brings us alongside another famous “non-signer.” Thomas More, by sheer ability and integrity rose to be the Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII. It has been said that Thomas was the only person Henry ever really loved – apart from Henry! When the Pope refused to grant the King a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, the King decided that he would take over the headship of the Church in England instead of the Pope. Every person of importance had to “sign on the dotted line” that they accepted the King as head of the Church. The one signature he really wanted more than all others was that of Thomas More. More was so respected in England that, if he signed, most of England would follow.
It is interesting – and frightening – to know that every Catholic bishop in England, with the exception of John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, had signed in favour of the Kings. When it came his turn to sign, Thomas More spent a full hour walking outside the courthouse struggling with his conscience, knowing that by refusing to sign he was giving up everything. Eventually, he entered the courthouse and told the officials, “I will not sign.”
After fourteen months in the Tower – with even his wife imploring him to sign – he was tried and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The King – because of his respect for More – changed the sentence to “mere beheading.” On July 6, 1535, Thomas More walked to the scaffold on Tower Hill. Looking out over the huge crowd that had come to see him die, he made that dramatic statement – the power of which remains undimmed by the dust of the centuries – “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s. first.”
Those words should be on the desk of every politician to remind him or her of the real meaning of “political integrity.” They are an eloquent echo of the words of Christ, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” I would like to take this occasion to remind our Members of Parliament of the lives of the unborn children belong to God from the moment of conception. Please do not surrender them to Caesar!