A Great Man

A Great Man

South Africa was ruled, since its independence from Britain in 1931 until its end in 1994, under a system that was later to become known as apartheid, meaning "apartness" in Afrikaans.  It was a system designed to perpetuate the rule and privileges of the white minority on the grounds that black South Africans were not capable of self-rule. 

Under apartheid, blacks could not travel on "whites only" buses, picnic on "whites only" beaches, or take their sick children to "whites only" hospitals.

I can honestly say that I grew up fairly color blind. 

It began with the great love of my childhood, Catherine, a dear African-American woman who cared for me as a boy.  Catherine loved me like few others, and I her. 

On my birthday, she would hide candy bars in my bed to the number equaling my age; we would get inside sleeping bags and slide-race each other down the stairs; she would always make me my favorite lunch, macaroni and cheese. 

One day I came home from school and Catherine was waiting for me in our kitchen.  While trying to hide it from me, she had been crying.  I remember feeling so upset – what had made my Catherine cry?  I asked her what was wrong, and she simply said that a great man had died that day.

I discovered later it was Martin Luther King, Jr.

I didn’t face racism until much later in life. 

I was born in Chicago, and then raised out west in Los Angeles and then later Seattle.  Moving from Seattle to a small coastal town in North Carolina, just before my sophomore year in high school, was nothing less than a culture shock. 

I had always played basketball, and had played for my high school as a freshman in Seattle.  I went out for the North Carolina team, and soon discovered that I was one of only two white boys who did.  At that school, white boys played football, and black boys played basketball. 

I made the team, and loved those guys.  But many of the whites called me “Oreo,” after the cookie.  Get it?  A little bit of white in the middle of black.

But there was more community on those long bus rides back from games, listening to the Commodores and Parliament on my teammate’s “Boom Boxes,” than anything I had ever experienced before.

Now flash forward...

I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2004 on the very day when the tenth anniversary of the ending of Apartheid was celebrated. 

During my time there, I went to the Apartheid museum. 

There are two entrances.  When you buy your ticket, you are randomly assigned to one or the other.  You then find out that one is the “White” entrance, and the other is the “Non-White” entrance.  You are only allowed entrance through the door of your race.

It’s then you realize that the entire museum experience places you under apartheid.

I was assigned “non-white,” and had to enter that way, and experience what that would be like.  I felt everything you might imagine – awkward, ashamed, and sick to my stomach that humans would ever treat each other that way. 

But most of all, I felt the evil of it all. 

Because it was evil. 

It was the antithesis of God’s call on our life, which is to enter into community with others.  The vision of human community is a gathering of old and young, black and white, male and female, rich and poor. 

And most foundationally, to be able to join with others and experience life as family that is both holistic and healthy.

When you drive-up to the Apartheid Museum, you are struck by the starkness of the building’s form, which you are told was intentional, reminiscent of apartheid’s spiritual impoverishment.  You also discover that the harsh lines and raw brick walls are meant to bring to mind the poverty forced upon so many through apartheid’s laws and penalties.  The wide use of steel and cement speak the universal language of oppression; fear and menace penetrate the dark images on walls and monitors.  There is a noted absence of color everywhere, purposeful testimony to a time when hope was in small supply.

The entire museum is a visual testimony to the fallen nature of human community.

Little wonder that the halls of the museum in Johannesburg feature displays of nooses and weapons – both sophisticated and homemade – as armed struggle took resistance to a new level. 

The museum does not attempt to hide that it was a nation in flames.

The turning point in South African history took place in the late 1980’s, and this process is my lasting thought from the Apartheid museum.

Housed in the museum is a replica of a Robben Island prison cell, specifically Cell Block B that for eighteen years housed a black man by the name of Nelson Mandela, who became a Christian after watching a Billy Graham crusade on television.

In 1988, while still in prison, Nelson Mandela extended an invitation to the government to negotiate an end to apartheid. 

Fast forward in time, and you have the election of 1994 – seen by many as a miracle – and one of the only times in history that a colonizing group gave up its power without a civil war or large scale external intervention. After his release from the prison this year, Nelson Mandela became the state president of South Africa.

What led to such a turn of events?

The former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, simply said, "Had Nelson Mandela...not been willing to forgive, we would not have even reached first base."

We think of the dream of community birthed in Mandela’s heart, but too often forget Tutu’s insight.  It was not a community that happened naturally; it was forged through specific acts and decisions, mostly of the spirit.

Or as Mandela himself once wrote, “a refusal to hate.”

But without the acceptance of Christ, the refusal to hate could never have taken root.

And Mandela let it take root.

So I’ll echo the words of my precious Catherine.

Once again, a great man has died.

James Emery White



James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity Press).

On the Apartheid Museum, see www.apartheidmuseum.org

David Aikman, Great Souls: Six Who Changed the Century (Nashville: Word, 1998).

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.