The spiritual qualities of Mandela

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Millions of people around the world have paid tribute to Nelson Mandela who died on December 5th at the age of 95. World leaders from around 90 countries were present  at a memorial service in Johannesburg. 

The international media have been filled with tributes, obituaries, reminiscences and analyses. Many political leaders and analysts have  focused on his political impact, his statesmanship, his role in the struggle for liberation and in the subsequent transition to democracy.  Very few have taken an overtly spiritual approach. It is true that Madiba has seldom, if ever, made public pronouncements about his religious beliefs, and this aspect of his life has remained private.  We would like to consider Mandela’s legacy though a spiritual lens; and what we see there may prove to be more significant and enduring than his achievements as a liberator and politician. St Paul’s famous triad of ‘faith, hope and love’ presents itself as a point of focus.

Madiba – Faith

Nelson Mandela knew, back in the 1940s and 50s, that his commitment to the liberation struggle could result in his death by execution; and almost certainly would result in long-term imprisonment. In both the treason trial of 1956 and the Rivonia trial of 1963, the death penalty was a real possibility. Although he was acquitted in the former, his conviction in the latter brought with it a distinct fear that he and his comrades would be hanged.
man5It seems that to embark on a course of action such as that chosen by Mandela and his comrades at the height of apartheid oppression required a great deal of faith. Not specifically religious faith, of course, but a conviction nevertheless that the dangers you are confronting, the relationships and comforts you are sacrificing, the punishments you are inviting, are all endurable – and necessary precisely because they will lead to freedom. This is something entirely different from the motivation of the fanatic, the suicide-bomber, the one who seeks ‘martyrdom’. Such a person may want to make a grand statement, but it is more one of despair than of faith in a better future.
Mandela’s calm, rational acceptance of the risks he ran by dedicating his life to the struggle was not the act of a fanatic or a political martyr; it was the act of someone who could envisage the ‘promised land’ of a free and just South Africa, and who was prepared to set off for it with faith that, even if his personal journey was to end in prison or at the end of an executioner’s rope, his people would get there in the end. Indeed, this is how he saw it, in words he spoke during his speech from the dock at the beginning of the Rivonia trial: “The invincibility of our cause and the certainty of our final victory are the impenetrable armour of those who consistently uphold their faith in freedom and justice in spite of political persecution”.
man2Faith sustains. Even after more than 20 years in prison, cut off from family and friendships, and with liberation not apparently on the horizon, Mandela was quite firm in rejecting the first overtures made by the apartheid government. It wanted him to make concessions, to ‘renounce violence’, and to enter into negotiations while still a prisoner. Mandela famously rejected these approaches, sending a public message via his daughter Zindzi: “My father says: ‘Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return [to prison]’”. It would have been easy to give in at that point, having sat in jail for two decades, and having won international status as the world’s most famous political prisoner. And surely that temptation must have been great – Madiba was by then nearly 70, an age when most people permit themselves to slow down and enjoy the fruits of their labours. But instead he kept faith with the values and principles that had brought him to prison in the first place; and as a result, when he was eventually released, it was on his own terms, not as a compromised or weakened figure, but as the man of stature that we came to know after February 1990.  Once again, it is not necessary to claim that the faith exhibited by Madiba was a specifically religious one (though it is well-known that he liked spiritual reading material and had close relationships with prison chaplains who visited Robben Island, especially the late Fr Brendan Long of Cape Town archdiocese). His faith in the correctness of what he was doing, and in the ultimate outcome of his sacrifice and commitment, was what kept him going and kept him strong in spirit. And that is surely the essence of what all kinds of faith should do for us. (M.P.)


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