Nelson Mandela

Given all the tributes spoken and written about Nelson Manela since his death on December 5th it may be presumptuous to add one more piece, especially a short one. Furthermore, in a series on “interfaith” peacemakers how can a man be included who admitted he was a nominal church-goer (Methodist) at best? He had a strong humanist philosophy which was supported by his religious roots, but he also saw how religion could be used to support injustice as with the Dutch Reformed Church’s intimate involvement with apartheid. As Mandela looked ahead he valued the ideals of religious faith and saw them as critical in building a good future for South Africa. His towering witness for freedom and reconciliation amid one of the signature struggles of the 20th Century made him a figure who had to be addressed by religious communities and leaders around the world.
Daniel Buttry

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Nelson Mandela in 2008 from Wikimedia CommonsThe outlines of Nelson Mandela’s life are of historic proportions around the world. His protests against the racism of South Africa began at an early age. He was expelled from college for joining a student protest. Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1944 and helped organize the ANC’s Youth League. He was banned for first time in 1952 following nonviolent defiance campaign that he led for ANC. He was arrested again in 1955, leading to a marathon 3 ½ year trial that ended with his acquittal.

As soon as he was released Mandela went underground. He organized “Spear of the Nation,” ANC’s armed wing. They engaged in acts of sabotage against government-related facilities. Mandela was arrested and eventually tried along with various comrades. At the opening of the trial he gave a speech in which he proclaimed: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Mandela was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

He was sent to notorious Robben Island where he became an international symbol for the resistance against apartheid. In prison he maintained his passion for freedom but was transformed with compassion about how to obtain it. He spoke about the source of the change within: “The link was religious organizations, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and members of the Jewish faith. They were the faithful who inspired us.” The freedom movement grew with many twists and turns. As the hold of the apartheid regime began to crumble and international pressure increased, the government began negotiating with Mandela while he was in prison about transitioning to a post-apartheid government. Following the unbanning of the ANC, Mandela was released on Feb. 11, 1990. In 1993 he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with then-President F.W. de Klerk. On April 27, 1994 Mandela along with other black citizens voted for the first time in free democratic elections. Mandela was elected President and inaugurated on May 10 as South Africa’s first black President.

In this series about peacemakers Mandela is noteworthy in particular for four contributions that helped transform South Africa and also impact the larger world.

1. He made the transition from leader in a liberation struggle to reconciler who could heal and rebuild a civil society. As he said, “From the moment the results (of the Presidential election) were in and it was apparent that the ANC was to form the government, I saw my mission as one of preaching reconciliation, of binding the wounds of the country, of engendering trust and confidence. I knew that many people, particularly the minorities, whites, Coloureds, and Indians, would be feeling anxious about the future, and I wanted them to feel secure. I reminded people again and again that the liberation struggle was not a battle against any one group or color, but a fight against a system of repression. At every opportunity, I said all South Africans must now unite and join hands and say we are one country, one nation, one people, marching together into the future.”

Mandela took the lead in acting out what reconciliation would look like, from forgiving his jailers to supporting the South African rugby team as they hosted the World Cup—and then won it. He worked at reconciliation in symbol and substance. Once Mandela took charge the conflagration that many feared never came. Racism and inequality were still issues to be sure, but South Africa was creating a society few dared to dream as possible.

2. One of the substantive ways Mandela led to reconciliation was his support of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He chose Archbishop Desmond Tutu to chair the commission, bringing the stature of a leader in the struggle for freedom to the position, but also a religious leader with moral authority to stand for reconciliation. Furthermore, Mandela agreed that the ANC and other liberation groups be held accountable for their crimes as well as the apartheid regime. The process had its critics on both sides, but Mandela through the power of his stature and integrity behind a standard of justice that transcended race or politics.

3. Mandela stepped down as President after his first term concluded in 1999. This set a precedent for the peace transition of power, something that neighboring Zimbabwe failed to achieve following its liberation struggle. Much like George Washington in the United States, Mandela could have ruled as long as he wanted. But by choosing to relinquish rule he used his stature to establish a tradition of democratic and peaceful transition.

4. As a retired national leader Mandela threw his global statesman status into peacemaking initiatives. He struggled with failing health but still found energy to provide leadership in efforts to end the war in Congo, to find a way to bring the Libyan bombers of Pan Am flight 103 to trial, and create “The Elders” as a respected international discussion body to examine some of the world’s most difficult problems.

When Mandela died on December 5 at the age of 95, South Africans didn’t mourn so much as celebrate the amazing life and leadership of their “Tata,” the “Father of the nation.” He was an inspiration to not only South Africa but to the whole world of how even the most difficult conflicts can be transformed. He concluded in Long Walk to Freedom, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”


Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, London, 1994

No Future Without Forgiveness, by Desmond Tutu, New York, 1999.

Nelson Mandela Foundation:

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Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.