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Nelson Mandela and the Ironies of History

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On Thursday, South African President Jacob Zuma announced the death of Nelson Mandela at age 95. One of the most significant and vital figures of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela became known not only as the father of his nation, but as the father of an entire people.

All this goes back to 1918 when Mandela, then known by the name Rolihlaha, was born into the royal line of the Xhosa tribe in South Africa. Later, his name was changed to Nelson when he was baptized by Methodists. When he died he was known by Africans merely as Madiba, representing his traditional clan.  By then, he had become one of the most respected figures on the world stage.

Nelson Mandela came to adulthood as the minority white government of South Africa was instituting apartheid, the radical system of total racial segregation and discrimination that forced the native African majority in the nation into a state of humiliating oppression. Apartheid required the social, economic, and political separation of whites and blacks in South Africa, and it was enforced with brutality and murderous force.

Apartheid was a multidimensional structure of repression, humiliation, and prejudice. Americans would be hard-pressed to imagine how such a system could exist until they realize that a similar system of racial apartheid had existed throughout most of the 20th century in the United States, especially in the South.

Under apartheid, many of the African tribes were put onto tribal lands and territories where they had no access to modernity, to modern goods, or to the modern economy. Black South Africans were denied access to the political process, blocked by an entire system of laws that treated them as second-class citizens in the nation of their birth.

Apartheid flies in the face of the Christian understanding of the equality of every single human being. Our true human equality is not based in a political promise, it is biblically and theologically grounded—unquestionably grounded in the fact that the Bible clearly reveals that every single human being is equally made in God’s image. We are separate and distinct from other creatures precisely because we alone as a species—as human beings, as Homo sapiens—we alone bear God’s image. And we bear God’s image equally, male and female, regardless of any racial or ethnic consideration; and for that matter—as in these days we must argue over and over again—regardless of any other kind of consideration, including age or process of development.

The death of Nelson Mandela represents a landmark in terms of history. But it is also, in terms of the Christian worldview, a cause for our deepest thinking about the intersection of history and destiny, of human rights and human dignity, and of character and leadership. Nelson Mandela, long before World War II, came into contact with what became known as the African National Congress. The sole effort of the African National Congress (better known as the ANC) was to overthrow the apartheid regime by any means necessary.

As a young man, Mandela joined the ANC when it was, to use the only word that would fit, a terrorist organization. And yet, he also became a major figure in world politics and statesmanship. He spent many years in prison after several treason trials for acts against the government of South Africa. He found himself on the infamous Robben Island as a prisoner for almost twenty years; and then he spent almost another decade in a separate prison. By the time he emerged from his prison cell at age 72, he was understood to be the only man who could save his nation from total chaos and violence. Less than four years after his release from prison, Mandela took the oath of office as the democratically-elected President of South Africa.

What changed? Well, you might say everything changed.

In the 1990′s, Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize, shared with F. W. de Klerk, the last of the white Afrikaner presidents of South Africa. De Klerk shared that Nobel Prize with Nelson Mandela precisely because it took a cooperative effort by the last white president of South Africa and the first black president of South Africa to put together a system that would not lead to national collapse, but would create a national future.

South Africa remains a deeply troubled nation in many ways, but it is an economic powerhouse. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in its obituary on Nelson Mandela, South Africa is the economic powerhouse of Africa: it stands out economically from every other African nation. And much of that is due to the transition that took place in the 1990′s away from apartheid and toward a new future for South Africa, that very process that was negotiated by F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela lived a very long life. His life encompassed most of the 20th century and at least the first decade and more of the 21st century. He retired twice from national life. He served only one term as president, offering a rare model of political modesty. His nation has never again achieved the political stability he gave it.

When you think of Nelson Mandela and reflect on his life, and now on his death, there are many worldview issues that are immediately implicated. One of them has to do with the fact that Nelson Mandela was, by any honest analysis, a terrorist. That immediately raises a deep moral issue. How can someone be so honored who had at any point resorted to terrorism in order to achieve a political objective?

Well, while we’re thinking about that question, let’s reflect upon some less convenient facts of history. For instance, we should look at Menachem Begin, who became one of the most powerful prime ministers of Israel, and who signed the Camp David peace agreement with then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat during the American presidency of Jimmy Carter. Like Nelson Mandela, Menachem Begin shared the Nobel Peace Prize, but he was also a terrorist as a young man—a Zionist terrorist. He was directly implicated in the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 that led to the deaths of at least 91 people. He was known as a terrorist; he was wanted as a terrorist. And yet, he later became the Prime Minister of Israel and also shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Likewise, Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Menachem Begin, also began his political career as a terrorist against the British.

While we’re thinking about terrorism, we probably also ought to think about someone from our own nation’s history, like George Washington. Had the American Revolution turned out differently, George Washington would in all likelihood have been hung as a traitor. He would also have been accused of being what we now call a terrorist.

All this is not to give moral absolution to terrorists, so long as they win and eventually have political victory. It is, however, to remind ourselves that in the process of politics in a fallen world, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

In the United States, we speak about the efforts that led to the overthrow of the British colonization as our national revolution, the birth of a nation. The British called it treason.

Similarly, Nelson Mandela is seen as a great hero by the people of South Africa, as was Menachem Begin by the people of Israel. This pattern certainly does not absolve the use of force. It does not absolve terrorists of their tactics, it just raises the point that when we talk about terrorism, character, and historical change, we must think honestly.

That honest assessment recognizes that when you look at the process of political change, the kind of change on a scale necessary to overthrow something as powerful as apartheid, it looks in a fallen world as if force, more often than not, becomes necessary. That is lamentable; but we ought to note it honestly. This is a crucial moral factor in our consideration of the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.

So is the issue of character and conviction. In my book on convictional leadership, The Conviction to Lead, I mention both Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. They raise many of the same
 issues. Martin Luther King, Jr. was known as an ordained minister. He was also known as a serial philanderer. Nelson Mandela became known as the father of his nation, but he was also known as a serial adulterer. He was a man who was deeply, morally conflicted and inherently complex. His early political philosophy was a variant of Marxism and, unlike King, Mandela renounced nonviolence as a political strategy. Much of this is deeply troubling to the Christian conscience.

And yet, when we look at his legacy in terms of the overthrow of apartheid, we recall the fact that Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most influential theologians in America at the middle of the 20th century, argued that there are times in which certain men, certain historical figures, appear to be historically necessary, even if they are far from historically perfect. That seems so often to be the case in a fallen world. In a sinful world, a world in which every dimension is marked by sin, the most effective political leaders are those who have the strongest convictions; but often those strong convictions and ambitions are met by a somewhat less than stellar character.

Nelson Mandela’s character, however, is not limited to, but certainly includes his sexual behavior. It also includes his personal courage. His moral character includes the deep conviction he had about the future of his people. He was a man committed to democracy: he did not overthrow apartheid in order to put in place an African National Congress dictatorship.

When it comes to human rights and human dignity, Nelson Mandela has to be put on the side of the heroes, not only of the 20th century, but of any recent century. He is, as an ironic view of history would remind us, one of those necessary men. A necessary man who nonetheless is a man whose feet were made of clay, as his biography reveals very clearly.

Hollywood is now releasing a major film about Nelson Mandela that tells both sides of this story. And as Americans perhaps see that story, it’s likely that they will be confronted with many of these worldview issues. It is unlikely that anyone is going to try to help them think about these questions and to think about them as Christians.

American Christians looking at Nelson Mandela must eagerly affirm that we are thankful that he was used in order to achieve freedom and human dignity for his people. But perhaps we should also be thankful that we know a little bit more of the story so that he is not merely held up as a hero to be emulated in every respect, but is known as one who was a morally complicated man. And when it comes to figures on the world scene, every single one of them is morally complicated, each in his or her own way.

That’s why a look at the span of human history causes us to recognize that our Christian responsibility is to look at this morally complicated picture with courageous honesty, to take it all as evidence, not only of why human history is important, but why our ultimate redemption can come only from Christ.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s great theological contribution was to remind us that history reveals the inescapable irony of the human condition. Everything we do is tainted by human sin, and the huge characters who change world events often demonstrate grave moral faults, even as they achieve great moral change. Nelson Mandela was one of those men. He was essential—even indispensable—to his nation and to the eradication of apartheid. But no man’s life is heroic in every respect, and no human hero can save.

God alone can save us from ourselves, and he saves us through the atonement accomplished by the Son, Jesus Christ. There is salvation in no other name, no matter how honored on earth.