Ezrom’s Journey from Imprisonment to Empowerment

By Rev. Daniel Cho

“I still can’t fully forgive them…”

He spoke with a tinge of self-disappointment as he reflected on that nightmarish episode from his past. Ezrom Mokgakala was imprisoned along with Nelson Mandela at the height of the apartheid struggle in South Africa. In one of my last conversations with him he shared with me his lingering doubts about his ability to fully forgive. But even so, as I listened to his story and glimpsed into his soul, I was utterly convinced that he surely survived the ordeal with unparalleled moral courage, dignity, resilience, and grace. Ezrom had indeed forgiven his captors—both institutional and political—just not fully; but that’s okay.

Ezrom experienced the horrors of racial violence and injustice. Over time, his journey took him from a place of suffering to healing, from dejection to empowerment, from doubt to hope, and yes—from hatred to forgiveness.

In my previous pastorate, Ezrom walked into my office one bright morning wanting to introduce himself as a newcomer to the church. I was immediately struck by his calmness, gentleness, and humility as he opened up his life to me. I quickly realized I was in the presence of an extraordinary human being.

He told me that at age 22 he was arrested, as were many other black protesters, and sentenced to six years for opposing apartheid, 18 months of which were spent at Robben Island. Conditions were extremely harsh and the treatment brutal. He was required to do daily labour in the quarry. Sixty prisoners occupied a cell and there were regular beatings from which Ezrom still carried the scars. In one interview he stated, “we didn’t expect any mercy. I was amazed at how much pain and suffering I could take. It was a very hard time and many of us lost hope.” His fellow prisoners included teachers, lawyers, and many educated political leaders. When Mandela arrived, the brutalization of the prisoners got worse because of the increased tension. But ironically Ezrom said, “his presence was a real inspiration… it was great to have leaders like him.”

Since his release from prison, Ezrom’s whole life was committed to the struggle for freedom for South Africa and to educating the young generation in three continents about justice and equality of all people. Meanwhile he became a lay preacher and eventually settled in Canada in 1983.

The season of Lent invites us to a journey of repentance and forgiveness, and the work of transformation. It’s a journey that leads to the cross of Christ; it’s central to living out our lives as his disciples. This commitment constantly opens us up and orients us to the wide horizon of God’s redemptive work on earth. As fellow travellers on this journey we are called to stewardship. This call stretches to communities, systems, institutions, and the earth itself. It’s not limited only to our sense of personal piety but calls us as those forgiven and embraced by God to responsible solidarity with the oppressed and powerless, the weak and disenfranchised, the marginalized and voiceless. In our continuous process of spiritual renewal and transformation of heart, we bring the transformative experience to bear in our social, cultural, and political surroundings, the very fabric of our lives. Together we can forge an opening to co-create a new reality and vision for our own hearts as well as for the world.

Mandela famously said, “as I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Make no mistake, Ezrom genuinely forgave his captors. But perhaps lingering feelings and residual memories of the brutality of South African injustice were a reminder of the difficulty of absolute forgiveness, whatever that might mean. Maybe Ezrom was just being too hard on himself. But one thing is for certain: he surely exemplified forgiveness in his life though he personally may have carried some doubt; he cast no shadow of the chains he once bore though occasionally he may have felt their gravity; he too left his hatred behind the prison gates though some residue may remain. And he was absolutely committed to embodying the message of peace, justice, hope and yes, forgiveness for this generation and the next. The life he lived after imprisonment, he lived truly free and forgiven.

The example of Ezrom’s life was the closest to true forgiveness I have personally known. He left a far-reaching impact on many lives, certainly mine. Sadly last November he passed away, but his life will be remembered and revered for generations to come both here and in South Africa.

Rest in peace, good and faithful servant. I will miss you, my friend.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to announce good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted; to proclaim freedom to the captives, to let out into light those bound in the dark.

—Isaiah 61:1

Photo: The watchtower at Robben Island. Credit: Amina Elahi/Flickr.

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