What made Nelson Mandela great

Nelson MandelaIt has been fascinating and moving to listen to the testimonies and tributes about the life of Nelson Mandela last night and this morning. By all accounts his death marks the passing of a truly great man.

But whenever I hear tributes to a great contemporary figure, I am also struck by how hard we find it to imagine saying these things of Jesus. The gospel accounts are so terse, and so laden with theological significance, and we read them through lenses which are covered with layer upon layer of history, spirituality, and experience that I think most of us find it very hard to imagine the human Jesus and what it must have been like to have encountered him. What was it that made people feel Nelson Mandela was such a great man, and does that help us in reflecting on the humanity of Jesus?

As I’ve listened to the tributes, several things are highlighted again and again.

1. A persistent vision of a better future.

This was something that permeated Mandela’s life, and something he was prepared to die for. He first came to international attention as a result of the speech he gave at the opening of his defence at the Rivonia Trial in 1962, when he was sentenced to life imprisonment. The speech (which you can read in full) ends:

During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. 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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

It is fascinating to hear how he continued to inspire others with the articulation of this vision. It was this he spoke about to the South African Rugby team before they won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, their first year playing after the sporting isolation of the Apartheid years.

On the Today programme this morning, Rowan Williams commented on what set Mandela apart from other politicians:

Most politicians represent an interest group, a community of people who vote for them and whose interests they serve. Nelson Mandela was different; he represented a community that did not yet exist, a community he hoped would come into being.

2. Iron personal discipline

51GHMv77ODLThe former bishop of Southward, Tom Butler, in his Thought for the Day, mentioned a quality that I suspect was largely hidden by Mandela’s media profile—the fact that he worked hard. Butler recalls an occasion when he travelled to South Africa to gain Mandela’s support for a cause. He first met with him at 8 am, and his secretary informed Butler that Mandela has already been working for two hours. He visited again at the end of the day, around 10 pm, and Mandela was still at his desk.

When people say that Mandela worked ‘tirelessly’ for his country, I don’t think I had appreciated before that they meant he actually worked very hard, long hours. No doubt this discipline was formed in him in his time in Robben Island, where prisoners were chained in rows of four, and worked at the rock quarry for 8 to 10 hours a day, five days a week. Mandela was not allowed to wear sunglasses, and the glare of the sun from the white rock caused permanent damage to his eyesight. He wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom:

I could walk the length of my cell in three paces. When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete on the other side.

This was the place he spent 27 years of his life.

3. Enormous capacity for forgiveness

This, of course, was the most striking thing about Mandela’s personal and political agenda, and without his personal example there is no doubt that there would have been much greater loss of life in the transition from Apartheid to democratic majority rule in South Africa. During his time in Robben Island, he treated his captors with courtesy and kindness, even becoming a ‘father’ to them:

“He was always friendly, polite and helpful,” Christo Brand, a prison warder who was with Mandela from 1978 until his release in 1990, told Reuters during a recent visit to the island.

“He became like a father to me. If I needed some help and assistance with something, he was always there for me,” said Brand, who now helps at the Robben Island museum.

When he became President, Mandela invited one of his jailers from Robben Island, James Gregory, to be present at his inauguration, even though Gregory had exploited his knowledge of Mandela (gained through censoring his personal letters) to his own advantage.

4. His attention to and respect for individuals

A consistent comment from people from all walks of life was that Mandela treated then with respect and attention. This was equally true of his jailers, of children, and of world leaders. One person who met him as a child remembers his question ‘Do you remember me? Do you remember who I am?’

John Simpson recounts the effect of this in a most vivid way.

The first time I met Nelson Mandela I was late for my meeting with him…I was worried he would be irritable with me, and that I would see a nastier, darker side of him. Not a bit of it. All the time I was apologising, he was thanking me for coming, in that charmingly normal, humble way he never lost till the end.

But there was more than that. He was one of those people who treat you as though, for the time you are with him, you are the most important person there. And in the years that followed, I always had the feeling that he was seeing you not so much as the far less than perfect person you really were, but as the person you would ideally like to be.

Former US President Bill Clinton said something remarkably similar on Newsnight:

When you were around Mandela, you wanted to be a bigger person, you knew you could be better than you were, you knew that you had to concentrate on the big things and let the little things go, and you had to overcome your own resentments.

He says other fascinating things about Mandela; you can watch it here:


What a remarkable quality to emulate—to see people not as they are, but the best that they could be. Worth cultivating.

5. Personal humility

An early comment quoted on the BBC News last night: ‘He was not a saint, but he was good.’ Mandela himself commented ‘I am not a saint, unless a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.’ But there was a characteristic sense of self-forgetfulness and selfless commitment to a greater cause which marked him. When he was released after 27 years in prison, he said to the waiting crowds:

I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.

It seems so long ago when Apartheid was in the headlines; South Africa is far from perfect, and yet it was almost impossible to imagine then the transformation that took place. So I will be joining with many others remembering this life with gratitude—and reflecting on the challenge to my own life and leadership of his example.

But I will also go back and reflect on another human life, someone who came proclaiming a transforming vision of a new way of life, of a community that was yet to come into existence, someone who woke early and worked late, who put up with hardship and isolation, who treated people from all walks of life with respect and dignity, and saw what they could become, who gave his life in service to others, and who was marked above all by humility.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matt 11.28–30)

Additional Note

There is an interesting article about Mandela’s Christian faith at Christian Today

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8 thoughts on “What made Nelson Mandela great”

  1. We recently heard at a conference someone suggesting that the difference between a national treasure and a mere celeb was a sense of vulnerability, for example the difference between Kylie and Danii. This was certainly true of Nelson Mandela. I’ve recently had cause to return to Vanstone’s classic ‘The Stature of Waiting’ in which he suggests that we are at our most Christlike when we are being done to rather than doing. I love Desmond Tutu’s comments that Nelson needed his time in prison to mellow http://t.co/JtmCNH2L9P Good news for those going through powerless times of waiting!

  2. ‘The 27 years were absolutely crucial in his spiritual development. The suffering was the crucible that removed considerable dross, giving him empathy for his opponents. It helped to ennoble him, imbuing him with magnanimity difficult to gain in other ways. It gave him an authority and credibility that otherwise would have been difficult to attain. No one could challenge his credentials. He had proved his commitment and selflessness through what he had undergone. He had the authority and attractiveness that accompany vicarious suffering on behalf of others – as with Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.'(Tutu)

  3. I’m not sure how helpful it is to fetishise ‘hard work’. It’s a mantra in our current political system that we should all be for ‘hard-working’ families, with the imitation that we are against the supposed work-shy scroungers. I am not even sure (and it’s risky for a workaday interpreter of the Bible to say this to a professional scholar) that it is particularly evident from the gospels that Jesus worked hard. I think sustainable rhythms of work, rest and play are more in keeping with the broad sweep of Scripture.

    Activism is an evangelical trait that leads to burn out and fuels our messiah complexes. So I groan too when you comment on this with admiration, Ian. Mandela was admirable, the only truly greatart of my lifetime, but I groaned inside when I heard Tom Butler refer to his long days of work. It’s possible that he may not have achieved what he did without working ‘tirelessly’ (are there really people who never tire?) but I think workaholism should be regarded as a flaw in the character of this otherwise great an if it is true that he worked such long and full-on days. Actually the wider picture people paint is of someone who could rest, relax and play too.

  4. Mark, that’s a fair comment, and I agree with a lot of what you say. But I am not sure I was ‘fetishising’ long hours. Note that the heading is ‘self discipline.’

    This point has made me reflect on why or why not I don’t work particularly long hours myself. On the one hand, I have tried to develop a balance between work, rest and play (don’t ask me where that phrase comes from!). But I also think it is interesting to consider the passion people have for something which might override their own interests.

    Later this morning someone was on who had written a book on the impact of political commitment on the children of political activists, which she sent to Mandela in prison. He read it and wrote back to her, so he was clearly not unaware of the issue.

    And yes, the constant comment was that his commitment to the cause did not undermine his capacity to treat people with dignity and humanity.

  5. Hello Mr. Paul. I am a white South African, and Christian. Just like you, I was so moved by all the testimonies about Mr. Mandela in the days after his death. I was a child during the years of apartheid and 16 years of age when he was released from prison. I am one of those people who see him as a Messiah figure, but I struggle to find evidence of his personal faith in Christ. I have heard conflicting testimonies. It seems that he just spoke in a politically or religiously correct way at times. I’ve heard him say that he doesn’t pray. But I’ve also heard that he testified to his faith before leadership of the Dutch Reformed church in SA. Apparently he exchanged letters with Billy Graham while in prison, but nothing is known of the content of those letters. I’ve tried to make contact with Mr Franklin Graham to find out from his father if such letters still exist, but his office is not very helpful. I don’t know if you as American can perhaps make contact with Mr. Graham to gain information of a possible conversion experience in Mr. Mandela’s life, before Mr. Graham passes away, not to be disrespectful, but I think it’s wrong for Christians to sing the praises of someone as if he was a Christian. I am thankful for the peaceful transition that Mandela helped to ensure in our country, but we have had a lot of problems with the new government, as you probably saw on TV during his memorial service, where I was present. Could you watch these videos and tell me what you think?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTFhaUYmzV0 and

  6. Just to add to the above comment, I have no doubt that Mr. Mandela, could’ve come to salvation in the last years of his life, of which we know very little of. It should be noted that Mr. Hammond’s interview with Mr. Mandela occurred long ago. He also seems to justify the apartheid regime by saying it was not for apartheid that they fought, but against a communist regime. I think it is fair to say that Mandela possessed Christlike personality traits, and that he had wisdom and charisma is very true, but the changes in the SA constitution that came with his presidency, such as pro-abortion and pro-homosexualism, are still with us and it’s difficult to reconcile those with someone who is said to be a Christian.

  7. Thank you Anita for your comments. I think this is a very interesting question; one comment I noted was that it would have been very difficult for Mandela to talk about his Christian faith and still enable all the different factions in South Africa to talk together.

    I think it’s also worth remembering that, notwithstanding my observations above, Mandela was far from perfect, has Desmond Tutu has pointed out.

    By the way, I am British not American!


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