Nelson Mandela

It’s really a clan name, derived from the name of an 18th century chief in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, from whom Nelson Mandela was descended. Nelson wasn’t his real name either, of course. It was given to him by a teacher on his first day of school, because his given name in the Xhosa language, Rolihlahla, was deemed inadequate or inappropriate.

Mandela was honoured at Harvard University in September 1998

Madiba was born in 1918, in a country dominated by racial injustice that had yet to be codified into what became the political philosophy of Apartheid. When he was born, Britain still ruled South Africa. By 1956 he had been arrested for high treason (and released). By 1962, he had been instrumental in the founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the spear of the nation), the military wing of the ANC, charged with leading an armed struggle against the Apartheid government which had institutionalised South Africa’s long history of racial injustice and taken it to new and bloody depths. He had also been arrested again, for sabotage. This time he was convicted and sentenced to five years’ hard labour.

In 1964, further evidence against Mandela came to light and he, along with several other activists and saboteurs, stood trial again. Plans for violent revolution, the stockpiling of Soviet weapons and the military training he had recently received in Ethiopia would result in Nelson Mandela narrowly escaping the death penalty and receiving a life sentence, branded a terrorist for the next 27 years. During those years in jail he would lose his mother and son and would not be allowed to attend their funerals. He would have one visitor a year for 30 minutes, do hard labour in a quarry and have a bucket for a toilet in the prison of Robben Island, within sight of the beautiful city of Cape Town. He would be able to send and receive just one letter every six months, but his reputation would grow and his potency as a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement would become essential to that cause.

Mandela with then PM Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street in July 1990

The nation's grandfather

Thanks to the growing and eventually ceaseless pressure brought to bear by that campaign, and to brave and pragmatic individuals within the South African Government, Nelson Mandela was eventually released from prison in 1990. He was 71 years old. I remember the day. Our family gathered around the TV, watching the news coverage with a sense of trepidation. My parents had been pro-ANC, and we were celebrating, but were also profoundly unsure what would happen when he came out. Would he order his followers to kill all the white oppressors? I would have been tempted, were I him. But instead of vengeful invective, over the following minutes, days and years he spoke simple, principled sense, refusing to give up the struggle, armed if necessary, against injustice until Apartheid was dismantled, but articulating a sense of place for all races in South Africa. Even the race guilty of oppressing the rest.

Nelson Mandela was our first democratically elected President and became the Nobel Peace Prize winner, the icon and rallying symbol for South Africa’s hopes. He guided South Africa through the stormy waters of our first few years of democracy and when he left office he continued in public life, calling the nation to moments and campaigns of charity and conscience. And slowly he became the nation’s grandfather, the one thing we could all agree on, Madiba.

White racists strangely had a lot of time for him, as did black people of a broad range of political affiliations. Liberals and conservatives, Christians and atheists, Asians, people of mixed race, the poor, the elite and the growing middle class all loved Madiba, admiring his dignity and his work for charities, even as they denigrated his politics or rejected the legacy he had tried to leave.

Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Soweto on 8 May 8 1994, two days before Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first black President

And as he lay dying in a hospital in Pretoria we all prayed for him. Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish leaders around the world prayed for him. Even folks in the white Afrikaans and still-segregated enclave of Orania did. The man who had united millions as a symbol of revolution and resistance had united them again as a symbol of the good mankind can achieve against overwhelming odds. The architect of transition from injustice to freedom without civil war and the grandfather of a multi-racial and peaceful South Africa. A secular saint.


As a South African I am grateful to Nelson Mandela for playing such a pivotal role in making the country of my birth free. As a Christian and a human being I believe that there are many lessons we can learn from his life and legacy.

We can learn simple things like the wrongness of institutionalised racism (and there are still nations on earth and close to the hearts of many Christians in which this is still relevant), but that, frankly, should be obvious to any man or woman of good conscience.

Madiba taught us, in practical and easy-to-understand images and actions, that revenge, the endless cycle of wrongdoing, bitterness and reprisal, is neither inevitable nor inescapable. We Christians can learn from this not just the lesson of forgiveness itself, but that we do not have the monopoly on morality and justice, that heroes come in many hues and that very occasionally it might be okay to look outside the fold of the Church for inspiration.

In a similar lesson, the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela give us the opportunity to question how we label people in our minds and speech, to learn from history that people we are taught to call ‘enemies’ sometimes turn out to be heroes. A British Prime Minister once called Mandela ‘that grubby little terrorist’. She was right, to an extent. He plotted guerilla violence and revolution in the tradition of Che Guevara. His organisation planted bombs. And for some of us, the lesson in that might be that questions of social justice and peace are not always simple or black and white. For others, it might be that today’s terrorist, once one understands their motivation, could be tomorrow’s heroic freedom fighter. I hope Madiba’s legacy is not to convince people that violence is justifiable, but I hope it makes us all think.

Nelson Mandela shares a light moment with Prince Charles in Amsterdam in 2002

We can learn from Madiba that even truly hopeless looking situations can change. That even when it seems pointless, it is still worth speaking out. Worth doing something. Imagine the perspective of his Robben Island cell. Imagine the perspective of anti-Apartheid campaigners working since the 70s. Every indication was that the South African Government would never give up power without a bloody and prolonged fight. And yet, miraculously, they did. A nation was changed. That has to be encouraging to anyone whose cause seems to have odds stacked high as security walls or rising sea-levels against them.

As we begin to mourn the passing of Madiba, the great Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, I hope we would see him as he was. Not as a saint, but as a flawed and ordinary human being who stood for something powerful and achieved something extraordinary. Who fought against both white domination and black domination, who eschewed bitterness and revenge as well as passive acceptance of injustice, and who dedicated his years of freedom to making the world a better place. Would that we might use our freedom similarly.