Nelson Mandela lived several lives: Communist militant, pacifist prisoner, and charismatic president. He was also the only recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize to receive both the USSR’s International Lenin Peace Prize and the American Presidential Medal of Freedom. What was the thread linking these successive and somewhat contradictory lives? Let me propose a hypothesis that his prison guards would certainly confirm, as would the Afrikaners who negotiated the end of apartheid with him: Mandela’s Christian faith led him from violence to redemption.
Mandela was a Christian, as I learned during a long conversation with him at a 1992 meeting in Durban of the South African Foundation, a business-backed anti-apartheid organization. The aura surrounding him then, felt by all who spoke with Mandela, was more mystical than political. Most South Africans, whatever their skin color, are Christians. The country’s ruling Afrikaners saw themselves as a tribe of Israel in exile. They adhered to an assiduous reading of the Old Testament, and an understanding of Christianity that they spread throughout South Africa. The reconciliation between the African National Congress (ANC) and the apartheid government of F.W. de Klerk (president until 1991) was an act of shared faith between two men who belonged to the same syncretic Christian tradition. The West’s economic blockade contributed to ending apartheid but did not bring Mandela and de Klerk together. It was not only the boycott of South African oranges by European and American consumers that overcame apartheid, but also belief in Christ.
Faith also explains and clarifies the path that led Mandela from Communism to liberal democracy and from violent action to peaceful reconciliation. Recall that in 1962, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for his role in organizing bombings of police stations—a very real crime. In the years when Mandela played a significant but not leading role in the organization, the ANC was a branch of the Communist International. With Soviet support, the ANC preached violent revolution. Mandela’s incarceration was politically unjust, but it was well-founded legally, as Mandela himself never denied. While in prison, he lost faith in revolution and in Communism. Was this because of the collapse of the USSR, as his adversaries believed at the time? Or was it the result of a personal meditation? The latter seems more likely: Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island, filled with his books and manuscripts, had something of a monastic spirit.
Christ was not the only prophet who served as inspiration to Mandela in his cell. There was also Gandhi, who, like Mandela, had practiced law in South Africa. In his work in the Indian community of Durban, where he conceived of and applied the principle of nonviolence to overcome white racism, Gandhi acknowledged the direct inspiration of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. The lesson was not lost on Mandela: non-violence and the force of truth (satyagraha) are more effective than violent confrontation, but only when applied within a society that shares the same Christian and humanist values. As Mandela would, Gandhi appealed to the conscience of whites, both in South Africa and beyond; he won effective recognition by the British as the figurehead of Indian independence before he arrived in India. Similarly, Mandela was “recognized” outside of South Africa as the obvious leader of national liberation, before achieving this status domestically. (Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, who succeeded in persuading American and British Protestants that the end of apartheid was an ethical imperative, played a key role as well.)
Mandela’s faith made possible not only the reconciliation of blacks and whites under the same national flag, but also—and this is often overlooked in Europe and America—the reconciliation of enemy groups among South Africa’s numerous black factions and communities. In the age of apartheid, hostility between the Xhosas (Mandela’s ethnic group) and the Zulus (ethnic group of the current president, Jacob Zuma), was at least as intense as that between blacks and whites. In those days, the Zulus often sided with whites against the Xhosas, Indians, and other “mixed” minorities. South Africa was then, and remains, an ethnic puzzle.
The Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, founded by President Mandela and led by Bishop Tutu, is perhaps the most concrete example of Mandela’s Christian faith. Instead of the vengeance and reprisals that were expected and feared after years of interracial violence, the commission focused on confession and forgiveness. Most of those who admitted misdeeds and even crimes—whether committed in the name of or in opposition to apartheid—received amnesty. Many returned to civil life, exonerated by their admission of guilt.
Few twentieth-century statesmen have improved our world. Even fewer were inspired by religious faith rather than ideology. The European Union’s Christian founders —France’s Robert Schuman, Italy’s Alcide De Gasperi, and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer—prayed together before making decisions. Poland’s Lech Walesa and South Korea’s Kim Dae-Jung, both fervent Catholics and Nobel Peace Prize winners, forgave their Soviet and military oppressors by explicitly referring to their faith. This is the paradox of an age we call secular, but which is in truth haunted by transcendence.