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Mandela’s priest

by
05 September 2007

A statue of Nelson Mandela was unveiled in Parliament Square last week. Chris Chivers had exclusive access to the memoirs of the priest who ministered to him in prison

Honouring the past: The unveiling, last week, of the statue of former South African president Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square, London, attended by Mr Mandela, his wife Graca Machal, Ken Livingstone and Gordon Brown

Honouring the past: The unveiling, last week, of the statue of former South African president Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square, London, attended by...

TO MILLIONS around the globe, Nelson Mandela is a living icon, the embodiment of a human aspiration that eludes most people: the ability to transcend the past, and to do so with a forgiving love that is at once remarkable and transforming.

To meet Mr Mandela — and I have been fortunate enough to do so on several occasions — is, I believe, to come as close to the kenotic, Christ-like heart of the gospel as it is possible to come. That is the reason it is so appropriate that the late Ian Walters’s nine-foot bronze statue of Nelson Mandela has been unveiled in Parliament Square, across the road from the Innocent Victims’ Memorial at Westminster Abbey, and Westminster Methodist Central Hall, the scene of many an anti-apartheid meeting inspired by a man who is one of Methodism’s greatest sons.

I phone a friend in Cape Town, the Revd Harry Wiggett, to tell him all this. He is absolutely delighted, because he can picture where the statue is going to be placed, having visited the Square and the nearby Abbey earlier this year for the first time in his 70-year life.

He and his wife had attended the service to mark the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. What struck him most was not the liturgy, nor the music, but the sheer range, in ethnic and religious terms, of the congregation. Above all, for my friend, a South African Anglican priest and poet, this was an affirmation of his life’s work.

He and his wife had attended the service to mark the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. What struck him most was not the liturgy, nor the music, but the sheer range, in ethnic and religious terms, of the congregation. Above all, for my friend, a South African Anglican priest and poet, this was an affirmation of his life’s work.

When he retired from full-time ministry a few years ago, a leader in the Cape Times said that, in relation to the anti-apartheid struggle, Fr Wiggett was “one of the unsung heroes of South Africa”. This was a shock to some, not least to many of his fellow Anglicans, who perhaps saw him as merely another priest. A priest, it is true, who wrote poetry that is increasingly better known — his Collected Poems 1970-2006 was reviewed in the Church Times just a few weeks ago (Books, 27 July). But had not others also spent 40 years using their particular gifts to slog away faithfully in a variety of parishes?

True prophets, of course, are rarely recognised in their own country. And it was not until the last decade of his stipendiary ministry that his poetry and some of the other significant and hitherto hidden aspects of Fr Wiggett’s work, came to enjoy the attention they deserved.

It was quite by chance — in a throwaway remark by Nelson Mandela, shortly after he was released from detention in 1990 — that Fr Wiggett’s name came up. For, to be a chaplain, as he had been on two occasions — both on Robben Island and on the mainland at Pollsmoor — in a South African prison during the apartheid years was, to many, to “sell out”, to be a despised pawn of the state, not a revered pastor in God’s Church.

Some had undoubtedly regarded him very negatively indeed. But on a bright summer’s day, when Mr Mandela addressed the Synod of Bishops in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, mouths dropped as the soon-to-be-president recalled the way in which Fr Wiggett’s faithful eucharistic ministry to him and to so many political prisoners had made such a difference.

“I had never understood why there were four Gospels,” Mr Mandela recounted, “until Fr Wiggett explained this to me in one of his memorable sermons.”

The room in which Fr Wiggett used to hold his communion services for the political detainees in Pollsmoor was, he recalls, “about as spiritually unpromising as you could imagine. . . if, that is, the apartheid officials actually gave me a room, after I’d spent ages filling in the forms that would let me in for the eucharist. Once,” he adds, “they offered me a urinal, but I drew the line at that.”

The favoured upper room was whitewashed, and contained one table and a few chairs. “It was hard to bring it to life,” Fr Wiggett re-calls, “but I did my best to use the table imaginatively as a visual aid.”

It was on such an occasion that Fr Wiggett explained the four Gospels in a way that Mr Mandela was always to remember. Fr Wiggett remembers it, too. “Looking at the table, I just said to him and to the others — Walter Sisulu was among them — ‘Imagine this is a football field. A match is proceeding and there are four reporters standing at different points in the stadium. It would be crazy when they came to write their match reports if they did not share many details in common — who scored the goals or saved them, what the run of the play was like.

“’But it would be equally crazy if the particular perspectives and interests of the reporters themselves did not feature in the final reports as well. One would be interested in forwards. For another, the defensive play would be the key that unlocked what was going on. It was the same for the Gospel writers’.”

“’But it would be equally crazy if the particular perspectives and interests of the reporters themselves did not feature in the final reports as well. One would be interested in forwards. For another, the defensive play would be the key that unlocked what was going on. It was the same for the Gospel writers’.”

Fr Wiggett is probably the last surviving of the long line of priests who sustained Mr Mandela and his fellow prisoners through 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island and at Pollsmoor. But he is a modest man, and, despite the way his contribution was brought into the open in 1990, it has remained almost completely unknown to most people.

After the success of his recently published Collected Poems, however, Fr Wiggett’s Nelson Mandela stories — which have never before been put on paper — are soon to appear in a spiritual autobiography, A Time to Speak, which is being published in South Africa in October.

“I hope when it appears that people will realise how much I owe to Mandela, not the other way round.”

Readers will soon be able to savour the stories for themselves — both in South Africa and in the UK.

Stories such as the one about the painstaking months it took for Fr Wiggett to persuade the authorities to allow Mr Mandela and his fellow detainees the tools and seeds they needed for what became the famous “trough gardens” beyond their cell windows (see box).

Then there is the occasion when, after a scandalously right-wing article by Jerry Falwell, the recently-deceased evangelist from the United States (saying that Mr Mandela was a communist and a terrorist), Fr Wiggett wrote a letter to the Sunday Times in South Africa to refute this, explaining Mr Mandela’s thoughtfulness as a Christian, and his faithfulness as a communicant over many years.

This was information already in the public domain, but, by writing the letter, Fr Wiggett was deemed to have contravened the code of practice for chaplains. “I was hauled in front of the Chaplain General and given a terrific dressing-down. I was told to expect punishment, and thought I’d be carted off to prison myself.”

Six months later, he received a phone call from a superior. “‘Wiggett,’ the man said, ‘Your ban’s lifted.’ ‘What ban, Sir?’ I asked — I’d been carrying on my regular visits as normal. ‘Oh God,’ came the reply, ‘Didn’t anyone tell you about it? For goodness’ sake, don’t let on.’

  “Such was the chaotic incompetence of the apartheid regime,” Fr Wiggett says, “they were always going to be defeated in the end.”

Most memorable of all, however, was the occasion when Fr Wiggett had reached the sharing of the peace during a regular eucharist. “I suddenly heard Nelson’s voice shouting across the room to Christo Brand, the warder who always sat stone-faced at the door during our services.

“‘Brand, man, you’re a Christian aren’t you?’

“‘Ja meneer, yes, sir,’ came the reply.

“‘Well then, you should be over here. Take off your hat and come and join us.’

“I hadn’t thought to involve Brand,” Fr Wiggett adds, still gently chiding himself. “I saw him as just another apartheid functionary. But Nelson saw him as a precious child of God. That was typical of him. It is why he managed to hold us together as one transformed nation. He had the theology that the rest of us lacked. Or, to put it the other way round, he had the theology to which the rest of us must aspire.”

The Revd Chris Chivers is Canon Chancellor of Blackburn Cathedral. He was previously Precentor of Westminster Abbey and of St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town. He is the editor of Harry Wiggett’s Collected Poems. Copies of A Time to Speak (published in mid-October) can be pre-ordered from him, price £8-95 plus £1-50 p. & p. Email: chris.chivers@blackburn.anglican.org

Memories

Chris Chivers’s research prompted Harry Wiggett to remember a story he had forgotten

DURING this time, I remember requesting Warrant-Officer James Gregory, who was in charge of the political prisoners, if it would be possible to let them have some asbestos troughs so that they could at least plant a few seeds and have the joy of watching something grow.

Eventually, after much correspondence between the prison, the authorities in Pretoria, and myself, permission was granted, and troughs, soil, and seeds were delivered to the political prisoners’ section in Pollsmoor.

Among the brightest moments of this somewhat restricted ministry — restricted inasmuch as any attempt at conversing with political prisoners on a personal level was inevitably quashed by the warder in attendance — were those when Walter Sisulu and Raymond Mhlaba in particular would tease Mandela, in my presence, about the slow progress of his runner beans (Mandela having been appointed by them as chief gardener); and the sudden awareness of the richness of humour and play on words in their intimate way of communicating with one another — and with me.

Shortly after this, I remember remarking to Mandela, when out of earshot of Warder Brand, that there was a very nice garden in Central Cape Town that he might one day find time to dig in. He immediately twigged that I was referring to the President’s residence — Government House — alongside the Houses of Parliament and opposite St George’s Cathedral.

All of this occasioned the only poem I wrote at that time with these amazing friends in mind:

The Revd Chris Chivers is Canon Chancellor of Blackburn Cathedral. He was previously Precentor of Westminster Abbey and of St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town. He is the editor of Harry Wiggett’s Collected Poems. Copies of A Time to Speak (published in mid-October) can be pre-ordered from him, price £8-95 plus £1-50 p. & p. Email: chris.chivers@blackburn.anglican.org

Memories

Chris Chivers’s research prompted Harry Wiggett to remember a story he had forgotten

DURING this time, I remember requesting Warrant-Officer James Gregory, who was in charge of the political prisoners, if it would be possible to let them have some asbestos troughs so that they could at least plant a few seeds and have the joy of watching something grow.

Eventually, after much correspondence between the prison, the authorities in Pretoria, and myself, permission was granted, and troughs, soil, and seeds were delivered to the political prisoners’ section in Pollsmoor.

Among the brightest moments of this somewhat restricted ministry — restricted inasmuch as any attempt at conversing with political prisoners on a personal level was inevitably quashed by the warder in attendance — were those when Walter Sisulu and Raymond Mhlaba in particular would tease Mandela, in my presence, about the slow progress of his runner beans (Mandela having been appointed by them as chief gardener); and the sudden awareness of the richness of humour and play on words in their intimate way of communicating with one another — and with me.

Shortly after this, I remember remarking to Mandela, when out of earshot of Warder Brand, that there was a very nice garden in Central Cape Town that he might one day find time to dig in. He immediately twigged that I was referring to the President’s residence — Government House — alongside the Houses of Parliament and opposite St George’s Cathedral.

All of this occasioned the only poem I wrote at that time with these amazing friends in mind:

Seed Silence

I did not hear you fall
from pod to mother earth

I did not hear you call
or cry your humble birth

I did not hear you sigh
as silently you grew

I did not hear a Why
because God made you you

And yet your silence spoke
of confidence and might

and purpose as you broke
through earth into the light

 

Seed Silence

I did not hear you fall
from pod to mother earth

I did not hear you call
or cry your humble birth

I did not hear you sigh
as silently you grew

I did not hear a Why
because God made you you

And yet your silence spoke
of confidence and might

and purpose as you broke
through earth into the light

 

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