Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, affectionately known as Madiba, was buried last Sunday. Once upon a time the world’s most famous prisoner, he left this life on 5 December and we have seen his remains interred at an event viewed by the entire world. God has a way of reversing a man’s fortunes. Here is a man who was shut out from the view of the world for 27 years. Now in his death, he brings the whole world to a stand still with about one hundred heads of governments going over to attend his funeral!
Writing a blog post on Mandela is very difficult. I feel like a candle holding out light to the sun. Mandela’s public persona looms large over southern Africa, and indeed across the whole planet. Who does not know about him already? So, what is there to say that has not been said? As I put pen to paper,1 therefore, my aim is not to say anything new. I want to write as an evangelical leader in Africa about something that has happened on our continent and has gripped the attention of the whole world. A huge oak tree has fallen in the village. I must join the conversation by contributing two lines of thought.
A TERRORIST AND COMMUNIST?
Although an overwhelming number of articles in newspapers and magazines, and posts on blogs and Facebook are very positive, it is amazing that there are a number of very negative posts as well. While many have hailed Mandela as perhaps the greatest African leader, others have dismissed him as a terrorist and communist. How, can one explain this?
Here is my take on the negative sentiments. Everyone who has labelled Mandela as a terrorist and communist have gone to fish for data from the period leading up to Mandela’s arrest when he went into guerrilla warfare in his quest to fight for the rights of his people—the black people of South Africa. Without seeking to give a blanket approval to any form of fighting, I only ask that those who give us “proof” that Mandela was a terrorist and Communist should give the context from which they are fishing their data. It would be helpful in enabling their readers to make a more informed judgment.
In Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela explains why he went into guerrilla warfare. As one of South Africa’s first lawyers to set up his own private practice, Mandela says that he first tried the legal route in his fight for the democratic rights of black people. The brutality of the Apartheid government is what made him realize that this was not working. Hence, he says, he was forced to go into guerrilla warfare and to seek to work together with the Communist party in South Africa though he did not share in their philosophy. They had a common enemy: South Africa’s Apartheid government. In his book, Mandela makes it clear that the aim of the African National Congress (ANC) was to target installations (and not individuals) in order to make governing South Africa impossible. Sabotage, rather than terrorism, was the goal.
It seems to me that the best time to judge a man is when he is in full control of a situation. In other words, was there anything in Mandela to suggest that he was a brutal murderer and a Communist when he now took over the reigns of government as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994? I get the impression that, during his one term in office, Mandela showed that his heart was really for both black and white South Africans to enjoy their God-given freedom as equal citizens of the country. He did not want any race to dominate another either by political or economic power.
Personally, I think that anyone who writes about Mandela and leaves us with a negative impression of his political ideals tells us more about himself than he tells us about Mandela. Madiba is too tall a figure to be painted black by a dwarf. For the cause for which he lived (i.e. the freedom of all the people of his country) it is difficult to find someone else alive today who can be a better icon. Facts are very stubborn things. The best we can do is to admit them. Mandela was an African liberator par excellence!
Was he a perfect man? I would not say so. Like the rest of us, he had his warts and all. For instance, his views of human freedom failed to take cognizance of the effect of the fall in Genesis 3. Thus, under his rule, South Africa came up with a constitution that is perhaps the most liberal in Africa, even giving freedom to homosexuals to practice openly and for abortion to be given on demand. Sex needs to have its boundaries. If government gives free rein to this area of life, it destroys the next generation morally and opens the door to a silent genocide. That is certainly a negative legacy that Madiba left us with. His logic for racial equality, when applied in this area, went one step too far.
MAY HIS SOULD REST IN PEACE?
My chief concern is with the ease with which many evangelical Christians have used the words “rest in peace” as they have bade farewell to Madiba. I am also an evangelical. I take my Bible seriously and interpret it literally. In my understanding of the Bible, the only persons who will rest in peace in eternity are those who have repented of their sins and put their trust in Jesus Christ as their only hope of acceptance with God. The Bible says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36, ESV).
I have a friend who once worked in the Zambian High Commission in South Africa. He wrote a book entitled, Why Is God Silent about Mandela? It was a clever way of asking the question, “Why is Mandela silent about God?” He noted that although Mandela did not vilify religion in general and Christianity in particular, neither did he say anything that showed his faith in God and especially in his Son Jesus Christ. Yes, Mandela had a Methodist background. However, any evangelical will know that growing up in church does not make one a Christian. You must personally turn to God in repentance and put your trust in Jesus Christ. On this matter, Mandela was conspicuous by his silence.
This should not take away anything from the good that Madiba did. He did a lot of good for us by his fight for a democratic South Africa. He did a lot of good for us by his example of not being bitter after spending the best part of his adult life as a political prisoner. He did a lot of good for us by showing that an African president can step down from office on his own accord without waiting for public opinion to turn against him or without bringing the whole nation down together with him. Madiba did a lot of good. But if I read my Bible correctly, no one enters heaven by his own good works. This is because our good works are tainted with sin. The best of men are men at best. God is absolutely holy and is of such pure eyes that to him our good works are like filthy rags.
So, may we please be balanced as we reflect on Nelson Madiba Mandela? There is a difference between God’s common grace and his special grace. God can give someone plenty of the former and deny him the latter. In this matter God is sovereign. Let us admit it. A political giant has been laid to rest this week. There is a lot of good that we can learn from his life as a political player. As I said before, to argue against that does not tell us anything about Mandela. It tells us a lot about you! However, without being over judgmental—seeing that we do not know what is in the human heart—those of us who are evangelical Christians should at best admit the fact that Mandela’s silence on his own profession of faith does not inspire us to say, “May his soul rest in peace.”