I saw enough of the funeral formalities of Nelson Mandela to be impressed. The long list of official welcomes was like a who’s who of international politics, royalty and other miscellaneous celebrities. This former president of the Republic of South Africa was obviously well liked – evidenced in the fact that from the moment of his death media commentators were trying to outdo one another in testifying to Mandela’s greatness.
From my perspective some of that is with justification. On two scores! On a personal level Mandela emerged from 27 years of imprisonment – where he was only allowed one visitor and one letter every six months – with relatively little bitterness or animosity. On a public level he worked hard with former president F.W. De Klerk to dismantle apartheid and establish multi-racial elections. In 1994 he led the African National Congress (ANC) to victory and became South Africa’s first black president. He was well known for his reforming work and played a big role in ensuring the measure of relative stability that followed the end of the apartheid era.
My problem is that Mandela has, in the mind of the media at large, been given Messiah status. Or if that’s putting it too strongly then he has at least been canonised by the media as a political saint. That view is not just limited to the media. One of our families this past year had a student at the local high school. She was required to do an assignment contrasting Adolph Hitler and Nelson Mandela – the former: a twisted despot who influenced the world for evil, the latter: a hero of democracy who influenced the world for good.
In these days after Mandela’s death I have reminded myself on several occasions, as I was confronted by the media hype, that this man was not imprisoned for 27 years as a political prisoner but as a terrorist. As a leader of the ANC he renounced passive resistance to the government. As early as 1955 Mandela came to the opinion that the ANC “had no alternative to armed and violent resistance”. It was for these reasons that Mandela was imprisoned and there are reports that Amnesty International refused to take up his cause because he was not regarded as a political prisoner. They argued that he had had his day in court and had been sentenced for acts of violence.
Of course there is another side to that. Some years ago in a sermon I mentioned a certain sinful situation and what that had led to. One of my children came up to me afterwards and said, “Dad, you were involved with me in that kind of situation, why didn’t you just use me as an example – that would have made the whole think much clearer and more relevant.” I explained that I hadn’t wanted to make one of my children feel bad in a Sunday worship service. The response was a good lesson for me that I have never forgotten, “Dad, I’m no longer the person I was back then!” Perhaps that also needs to be said of Nelson Mandela. That will be difficult for those whose families suffered at the hands of the ANC.
However there is one proviso I need to mention. There are two ways we can deal with past sin. One is to try to whitewash the person concerned. We, as it were, cover the sinner with a layer of white plaster and we end up with a plaster saint. I suspect that much of the media has been doing exactly that. The other way is for God to cleanse us through the blood of Jesus and make us white as snow. That’s not a plaster saint, that’s a real saint. I don’t know where Nelson Mandela stood as far as his relationship with God was concerned. If he came to trust in Jesus, then in Christ he was a new creation. If that’s not the case then Mandela will stand before a greater judge than the one who sentenced him in 1964 and the outcome will be worse than the prison on Robben Island.