President Nelson Mandela, Madiba, has been a lifelong companion deferred by distance but close in spirit. He has been there like a big brother or even a father whom I looked up to. It is as though I know him personally, and yet I have never met the great man in person.
His death, though expected for some time, still comes as a shock to my system. He is simply irreplaceable as a human being. Virtually, I have come close to him in a few ways:
a) Back in the 1990s before the end of the sinful apartheid system, I visited South Africa, Transkai to be specific, the region from which President Mandela hails. I was treated as an 'honorary white' and got the best hospitality possible. Later I was to learn of the humble beginnings from which this iconic figure emerged. I too come from a deep rural area, but in Jamaica.
b) Just after his release from prison I attended the WCC General Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe where he spoke in glowing and thankful terms about the support the WCC gave the ANC, which encouraged those engaged in the struggle at the time. It was a honour to be in the same hall as this towering figure who had just emerged from almost 30 years of imprisonment under an evil and inhumane regime.
c) Then I read President Mandela's autobiography 'Long walk to freedom' and met a humble, witty, self-deprecating, reluctant, wise, cunning, forgiving, loving Christian man whose struggle was never about his personal liberation, or even his family's, but his nation's.
Madiba became the towering person he became, I think, because he discovered and embraced something of the essence of Christ's spirit of reconciliation and redemption for all: be they his accusers, his jailers, his warders, those in government - whoever was willing to repent and turn from the wicked apartheid system, Mandela was there to affirm their humanity and extend his hand of humanity.
President Mandela's unyielding belief in his own selfhood was the foundation upon which he built his regard for the humanity of others irrespective of their colour or religion. Sometimes we wonder about what it means to be human, Christian, godly; Madiba didn't just answer us in words, but by his life, a life he was willing to give up in pursuit of the ideal freedom for all. May his soul now rest in peace.