Worldview: Mandela & the power of forgiveness
First Person
Jan 8, 2014

Photo courtesy @Nelson Mandela Foundation by Andrew Zuckerman. Used with permission.
RICHMOND, Va. (BP)—Revenge. Retribution. Rivers of blood. 

That nightmare scenario was feared by many South Africans as the 1994 national elections unfolded. Generations of harsh white control were finally ending, decades of violent racial apartheid had been overturned and multiracial, democratic rule had arrived. But would the long-oppressed black majority demand a terrible day of reckoning?

“I was in South Africa in the days leading up to the election,” a Southern Baptist missionary recalled. “There was near-certainty that the country would explode in violence and descend into civil war. Those horrors were averted because one man who was intimate with injustice had the wisdom to realize that retribution was fatally poisonous and redemption a healing balm.”

That man was Nelson Mandela.

The former political prisoner, elected president that fateful year, prevented a descent into violence by the moral force of his call for reconciliation. His words could not be ignored, because Mandela had lived them during 27 years of isolation and hard labor as an inmate in the windswept prison at Robben Island. Years before he was released, he had begun negotiating a gradual end to apartheid with the South African regime. 

His 1990 release sparked national euphoria and worldwide celebration, but peace in South Africa was anything but assured.

TRIBUTE This Johannesburg, South Africa, monument to Mandela is among 1,340 tributes to him worldwide. BP Photo
“Great anxiety existed in the sub-Saharan African region as the first multiracial elections were approaching in South Africa,” said Gordon Fort, a veteran missionary to Africa who now serves as IMB’s senior vice president for prayer mobilization and training. “President F.W. de Klerk, in conjunction with Nelson Mandela, had led in a courageous movement to abolish apartheid. [But] great fear existed that after the elections, a bloodbath of revenge would ensue. When it became clear that Nelson Mandela and the ANC [African National Congress] party had won the election, in the midst of the celebrations the clear, calm voice of the new president set a new tone calling for forgiveness and reconciliation. 

“While tackling the daunting task of dismantling institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality,  gave a clarion call to national unity and religious freedom,” Fort recounted. “This atmosphere led to a season of opportunity for the church and its missionary representatives to advance the Gospel, engage new people groups and play a part in the healing of the deep rifts within the nation.†President Mandela was among the first to invite and welcome the role of the church in the new nation he was seeking to build. After retirement from the presidency, he continued to provide leadership and an example of statesmanship that allowed the church to flourish.”

What happened to the young firebrand who, decades before, had embraced armed struggle to change South Africa when civil disobedience failed? 

He never renounced the use of violence to overthrow apartheid, but he sought to avoid it. Suffering, solitude and study tempered and deepened Mandela during his long years in prison. Meanwhile, international pressure—and the tide of history—eventually forced the white regime to negotiate. When the moment came, Mandela the savvy politician was ready. He knew times were turning in favor of his cause, but he also knew the nation had to put anger behind, as he had worked to do in his own life behind bars.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” he said upon his release in 1990.

And after serving one historic term as president, he voluntarily stepped down in 1999—a rarity in a continent of strongmen—and spent his remaining years fighting against AIDS and advocating for freedom and international reconciliation. 

“He led a country in transition with grace, forgiveness, humility and dignity,” said Kim Davis, a Southern Baptist author and former Africa missionary who witnessed those historic days close up. “I feel privileged and grateful to have lived there, and President Mandela was an inspiration to our family.”

The influence of faith on Mandela’s post-prison philosophy of reconciliation is open to debate. His mother was a strong Christian believer. He was baptized as a Methodist in his teens. Like many African political leaders of the post-colonial era, his early life and education were strongly influenced by the impact of missionary work. “The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church,” he wrote in his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom.

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