RIP Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Mandela and de Klerk in 1992 at the World Economic Forum
De Klerk and Mandela in 1992, during South Africa’s transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy – Creative Commons (World Economic Forum)

As you’ve likely heard by now, the South African statesman Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela died earlier today at the age of 95. The reaction has been overwhelming; I’ll just sample a few responses.

“Our nation has lost its greatest son,” lamented South African president Jacob Zuma. F.W. de Klerk paid tribute to the man whom was still in prison when he became the last president of the country’s apartheid era: “Tata, we shall miss you – but know that your spirit and example will always be there to guide us to the vision of a better and more just South Africa.”

U.S. president Barack Obama, who has cited Mandela’s leadership of the anti-apartheid movement as inspiring his own political career, repurposed Edwin Stanton’s famous epitaph for Abraham Lincoln: “He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages.”

“We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela ever again,” added the president (who visited Mandela’s former prison cell on Robben Island during a trip to Africa earlier this year). National Journal correspondent Michael Hirsh suspected this was likely very true, that no one (Obama included) could succeed Mandela as a “hero for the world”:

Nelson Mandela voting in 1994
Mandela casting his ballot during the landmark 1994 election, when his African National Congress won almost 63% of the vote – Creative Commons (Paul Weinberg)

Certainly Obama himself doesn’t qualify (yet). Indeed, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to call Mandela the last of the great ones, the truly inspirational historical leaders on the scale of a Gandhi or Churchill or FDR who lived noble (if not entirely untainted, though Mandela comes close) lives and, more importantly, who genuinely changed the world for the better. Look around the world, and you see no one else of that stature.

Calling Mandela the “important political leader of the 20th century,” the American progressive evangelical activist Jim Wallis celebrated how the man widely known by his Xhosa name, Madiba, “combined justice and reconciliation like no other political leader of his time, shaped by the spiritual formation of 27 years in prison. Mandela’s life has blessed the world with courage and hope.”

The theologian Allan Boesak was, like Mandela, a leading figure in the anti-apartheid movement, which Hirsh called “in some ways the last really coherent global social justice campaign.” He warned against deifying his friend: (H/T Curtiss DeYoung)

My plea still is that we embrace him as the greatest leader that we have been given as a gift in our history, but we do not deify him in the sense of putting him above all human endeavor. All of us are able to do what Mandela had been able to do in his lifetime. If that is not a genuine inspiration for us, then our love for him is not right and then his whole life of sacrifice would be in vain.

Boesak currently holds the Desmond Tutu Chair of Global Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation Studies at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary. I’ll close this brief post with the words of this prayer from Archbishop Tutu himself, who emphasized (in a eulogy for Britain’s The Independent) that Mandela’s passions for equality, democracy, and human rights had “been lit by the Biblical teaching of the infinite worth of everyone because of being created in the image of God”:

Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu
Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – ANC Archives

We offer a prayer of contrition. We come with humble and broken hearts for all the ways we have fallen short of the glory of God.

We come carrying our sorrow for all of the ways that we have fallen short of the example that Madiba offered us; an example of integrity, of reconciliation, of leadership in the service of the people.

So we thank God for Rolihlahla. We thank God that this man had the courage to learn and to grow.

As we stand before God with all of our grief, we ask God to bless South Africa. God bless South Africa, guide our leaders, guard our children and give us peace.

Nelson Mandela at Wembley Stadium in 1990
Mandela at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1990, two months after his release from prison – ANC Archives

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