I have always enjoyed ferry boat rides; across the river Mersey as a child, over to Rottnest Island as an adult and over to Manly as a tourist when visiting Sydney.

However my most significant ferry trip was a few years ago in South Africa to Robben Island.

The island is infamous because it was an Alcatraz like prison camp where black South African leaders were sent during the apartheid years.

Nelson Mandela knew the place well.

He was imprisoned there was twenty seven years.

The other day I came across an interview with the man who spent five years in the cell next to Mandela. He had become a senior leader in the African National Congress (ANC) and was a committed Christian.

The interviewer began by asking where the African leader got his education, which school and university did he attend.

The ANC leader replied neither boastfully or triumphantly, “I got my education at Robben Island”.

The interviewer probed, what did you learn there?

He said the most important lesson he learnt was to learning to forgive.

He then went on to speak of his anger on his arrival to the island and how he was ready to kill any white man if the situation arose.

He spoke of the brutality of the guards and the constant humiliation.

He hated “the enemy” but under the guidance of Mandela and others he learned to love his enemy and forgive them.

It was a real struggle over several years.

Forgiveness is not easy or cheap.

Mandela believed that Apartheid was evil and must be hated and opposed vigorously, but he would insist “never hate the person”.

Reflecting back on his time at Robben Island, the African leader said that he became a different person.

He knew that he had forgiven when he would go to go Holy Communion on a Friday and invite the guard to put down his gun and receive the sacrament with him.

I can’t really imagine how soul and hope destroying doing five years of hard labour in a prison, under the constant threat of a beating would be.

Yet against the odds this man slowly learnt the essence of the gospel, love and forgiveness, for in Jesus Christ we are loved and forgiven.

I heard of an educator who said to his graduating class, what matters is not the information you have learned but the person you have become.

The Christian community is in the season of Lent, as we prepare for Easter. It is good time to ask ourselves in the light of the love of the crucified and risen Christ what person have I become?

Rev Steve Francis

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