The Word on the Week


Since his death on Thursday the extraordinary life story of Nelson Mandela has dominated the media. Headings like “From Prisoner to President” struggle to encompass the magnitude of all he accomplished in turning South Africa, from almost certain racial civil war, to a democracy with a substantial degree of justice and equality.

Violence marked his early years and led to his arrest. At his trial he recognised the possibility of the death sentence and famously declared that he was prepared to die for his country. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he served 27 years on the brutal location of Robben Island.

During that time his then wife Winnie carried the militant torch and was intermittently arrested and jailed herself. When Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990, he was firmly committed to peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness. But this is hard for Winnie to take. She was not ready to forgive and reconcile. Revenge and retribution are more attractive to her; she has suffered too much at the hands of hate. Eventually this leads to their separation.

Mandela’s strategy worked and the first free elections were held in 1994 when his ANC Party swept to power. His task as he saw it was almost complete. The question remained as to how to unite the people? He chose rugby, a white mans game, and in the final of the 1995 World Rugby Cup, where South Africa beat New Zealand, he donned the SA strip and identified with the national side in a magnanimous effort to unite the post-apartheid nation.

Unlike other Presidents he did not seek to cling to power and after the introduction of democracy with its framework for justice, freedom and equality he departed from politics to devote his remaining years to the altruistic works which he had founded.

Any reflection on his life must acknowledge the redemptive power of suffering. His 27 years internment could easily have left him bitter emulating his wife in her view of how apartheid could be broken. He went into prison a terrorist and came out a man of peace. He had come to realise that reconciliation could only come through forgiveness which in turn leads to true freedom.

Jesus’s prayer from the cross for forgiveness for sinners (St Luke Chapter 23 verse 34) was taken up immediately by one of the dying criminals (who would have been classed as a terrorist in his day) as he recognised the One who could meet his need. The cancelling of guilt, freeing the conscience, and the reconciling the man to God that followed with Jesus declaration, “ Today you will be with me in paradise” (verse 43) gave him his first taste of true freedom.

Mandela’s legacy gives tangible hope for freedom from bondage to racism but for freedom from all sin we need to listen to Jesus, “If the Son sets you free you will be free indeed” (St John Chapter 8 verse 34).