As I write this I feel genuinely moved by the death of Nelson Mandela. We’ve expected his passing for some time now with his health failing, but the moment of news still comes as a shock.
I grew up regularly watching South African apartheid on the news and Free Nelson Mandela was part of the soundtrack to my childhood. It was hard to make sense of the segregation and violent oppression we saw on our TV screens, but what was very clear was that apartheid was utterly wrong. At the centre of the struggle against segregation stood the almost mythical figure of Nelson Mandela, locked up in a damp concrete cell in the Robben Island prison. The white governing authorities’ resistance to international pressure to have him released only increased his fame further.
When Mandela was finally released in February 1990, I was watching along with millions of others. It was a time of great upheaval, but also incredible hope. Only three months earlier the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union was collapsing. Authoritarian and brutal regimes were disintegrating before our eyes and Nelson Mandela was like a magnificent phoenix rising from the ashes of apartheid to take his place not long after as the president of a reborn South Africa. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” never felt more true.
What set Nelson Mandela apart from so many other leaders was his genuine generosity, humility and forgiveness. To me, he displayed so many of the qualities of Jesus. He understood what true freedom looked like, that to love our enemies is of more worth than to fight them and that each human is of equal value. As his friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written:
‘Madiba’s own passion for equality and democracy as well as the enjoyment of inalienable rights for all must, to a very considerable extent, have been lit by the Biblical teaching of the infinite worth of everyone because of being created in the image of God.
‘It had nothing to do with extrinsic attributes or circumstances as ethnicity, skin colour or social standing. It was a universal phenomenon, and this dignity, freedom and equality of all were things that he was wanting to fight and live for, but if necessary, he would be prepared to die for. His opposition to injustice, racism and oppression were thus not just political and ideological but in a very real sense deeply religious as well.
‘He was tempered in the fire of adversity… The 27 years of incarceration, were important in the making of the man.
‘It gave him a new depth, helped him to be more understanding of the foibles of others, to be more generous, more tolerant, more magnanimous and it gave him an unassailable credibility and integrity, and so he could be as he was when he emerged from prison, willing to extend a hand of friendship to his former adversaries and be generous when they were vanquished.’
Nelson Mandela was not super-human in any way, but he taught me and countless others of what we are all capable of when we are willing to give our lives up for something we believe in with our whole hearts. He once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” His inspiration and example will be sorely missed.
It’s hard to sum up just how much of an impact Mandela has had on the world we now live in. I’ll leave Jim Wallis, the author of God’s Politics and president of Sojourners to have the final word:
‘Nelson Mandela was the most important political leader of the 20th century. While Roosevelt and Churchill helped protect the West and the world from Hitler’s Nazism, Mandela heroically exemplified the historic movement against colonialism and racism that oppressed the global south, depicted so dramatically in South Africa’s apartheid. And from a Christian point of view, Nelson Mandela combined justice and reconciliation like no other political leader of his time, shaped by the spiritual formation of 27 years in prison. Mandela’s life has blessed the world with courage and hope. For me, Nelson Mandela has been an ideal of what leaders can be. Being with him after his release from prison, and being present at his presidential inauguration, gave me a sense of a moral authority that I have never experienced with any other political leader.’