8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on Holy Ground
Mandela's Visit Makes Assembly History
Thousands flock to hear the legendary statesman

For many too young to remember Martin Luther King Jr, South African President Nelson Mandela ranks as patron saint in the struggle for racial justice. His unscheduled appearance in Harare at a Jubilee celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the World Council of Churches will probably be remembered as the emotional high point of the eighth assembly.
Mandela's deputy, Thabo Mbeki, was originally scheduled to participate in the celebration on Sunday afternoon 13 December. Then, the day before the event, WCC general secretary Konrad Raiser announced that Mbeki would not be coming. The news that Mandela would come instead elicited a collective gasp followed by wild applause.

Excitement built across the University of Zimbabwe campus over the next 24 hours. By 2:00 on Sunday afternoon an expectant crowd of more than 3000 people packed the Great Hall, the site of assembly plenary sessions. Others gathered outside in the giant overflow tent set up for visitors. Security officers in dark suits joined uniformed campus guards on the stage and at every entrance.

South African President Nelson Mandela and
Dr Pauline Webb at the Jubilee celebration

Photo by Chris Black/WCC
Click on the photo to order (ref. 7177-22a)

Silence washed over the auditorium as the African band on stage stopped drumming. Suddenly everyone stood. Applause erupted as those towardsthe back caught a glimpse of the white-haired legendary leader emerging down the centre aisle, accompanied by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. Eager hands stretched out to greet Mandela as he slowly made his way towards the stage.

Nelson Mandela joining the Imilonji KaNtu Choral Societey from South Africa in an impromptu dance

Photo by Chris Black/WCC
Click on the photo to order (ref. 7177-10a)

And then there he was -- a dignified elder statesman of slender, almost fragile build, his face already familiar, thanks to wide exposure across the world's newspapers and television screens, smiling broadly, but lined from the horrors of a 28-year imprisonment during the anti-apartheid struggle. He joined the colourfully dressed Imilonji KaNtu Choral Society, a South African choir long associated with the African National Congress, in an impromptu dance.

Mandela's arrival came in the middle of an audio-visual history of the WCC, narrated by Pauline Webb, the first woman to be elected an officer of the Council (she was vice-moderator of the central committee from 1968 to 1975). Webb had just finished recounting the WCC's actions in support of liberation movements opposing white rule in southern Africa. As the music built to a climax, Webb proclaimed, "Dreams do come true. A new South Africa has now emerged."

Mandela praised the Council for its support in the fight to end apartheid. "To us in southern Africa, and indeed the entire continent, the WCC has always been known as a champion of the oppressed and the exploited," he said. He challenged the Council to join Africans today in the struggle to achieve peace and responsible economic development, and to "bring an end to the curse of hunger, disease, ignorance and homelessness".

Departing from his prepared text, Mandela gave a special word of thanks to the missionaries who educated him. "My generation is the product of church education," he said. When he was growing up, he explained, the South African government "took no interest whatsoever in the education of blacks, coloureds and Indians. Without the missionaries and other church organizations, I would not be here today."

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