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Nelson Mandela - The Unseen Influence of Christ

Sunday, 8 December 2013  | Steve Griffiths

As a senior medical student in Zimbabwe in October 1987, I was driving with colleagues from one hospital to another when we heard an almighty explosion just a few hundred meters away.  We turned in the direction of the roar and within seconds were in the shopping center where a massive car bomb had exploded.  There was the crater, the ruined vehicles, the alarms going off, the shocked, stunned survivors – 18 people were wounded.  Miraculously no-one was killed.  The target was an African National Congress activist living in exile in Harare.  At that time Zimbabwe was one of the so-called Front-line States – almost constantly under attack from neighbouring South Africa.

A few days later I was driving to work again when a bomb ripped through a flat on the left of the road.  Another activist had been targeted with a bomb placed inside a television.  One night there was street-fighting in our road.  South African Special Forces were caught on a raid into Harare and were being hunted down.  Early the next morning, our neighbours across the road found the dead body of a South African soldier in their garden.  The tensions were so very high.  It was very hard to imagine in those days just how there would ever be a peaceful transition to a black-led government in South Africa.   

The first ANC General Secretary, John Langalibalele Dube was born in Natal in 1871. He was the son of Rev. James Dube one of the first ordained pastors of the American Zulu Mission. John Dube's grandmother was one of the first Christians to come to faith through American missionary Daniel Lindley.   John Dube came to faith too & went to study in the US, funding himself (on his parent’s instructions!) by working on road gangs.  He returned to ZA to found the African National Congress in 1912, to stand for the development & protection of the rights of black South Africans. 

A few years later, Nelson Mandela was born into a royal family in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.  His mother had become a devout Christian and she made sure he was educated at a Methodist mission school located close to the palace.  When Mandela went away to a Methodist mission secondary school, his guardians were Christians.  He attended church every Sunday with them and Christianity became a significant part of his life.  At university he joined the Student Christian Association and led Bible studies for his colleagues.  

Mandela became a lawyer and founding member of the ANC Youth League.  Unlike many of his activist colleagues he refused to join the ZA Communist Party because he did not agree with its atheism.  The white-led ZA government moved significantly to the right in 1948 with a hardening of attitudes and the passing of dozens of laws to reinforce the policy of racial ‘apartheid’ or ‘separateness’.  Mandela and his colleagues stepped up their work to reverse this dreadful new development, becoming radicalised in the process.  Mandela was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, only just escaping the death penalty. 

By the end of the 1980s there were hundreds of thousands of Southern Africans who were interceding for the situation in South Africa.  There had been appalling wars in Angola, South-West Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe with millions dead and displaced.  What would the outcome of the struggle for freedom in South Africa be?  It looked increasingly likely that there would be a terrible bloodbath.  Astonishingly, in a series of steps which amazed all who knew just how stubborn and intransigent the government of South Africa could be, Nelson Mandela was freed from twenty-seven years in prison.  He had endured beatings, solitary confinement, tuberculosis and hard labour.  While in prison, his family had suffered great hardship – the thing that he found most difficult of his incarceration.   

But he had been silenced by the South African government.  As a ‘banned person’ what he said could not be reported.  People just did not know what he would say or do when he was released.  Nelson Mandela left prison on the 11th of February 1990.  He was driven to Cape Town's City Hall through crowds.  There he gave a speech declaring his commitment to peace and reconciliation with the white minority.   He expressed hope that the government would agree to negotiations, so that "there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle".  He stated that his main focus was to bring peace to the black majority and give them the right to vote.  He brought a remarkable commitment to the process of reconciliation and an apparent total lack of bitterness.  Mandela met face to face with senior figures of the apartheid regime, including Betsie Schoombie, the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid.  With a focus on personal forgiveness and reconciliation, he announced that "courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace’. 

Lonely during his years of leadership of South Africa, following the breakup of his marriage to Winnie, Nelson Mandela developed a close relationship with Graça Machel, the widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel and 27 years younger than him.  Graça had been discipled in her faith while studying in Portugal through a Baptist pastor and his wife.  That same Baptist pastor’s wife taught Anna and I Portuguese in 1991!  Graça had a significant on-going impact in praying with and for Nelson Mandela as he led South Africa but apparently refused to marry him until the job was done and Nelson stepped down from leadership of the nation and the party!   

A remarkable story – Biblical in its proportions.  Like Joseph, a fiery youngster who knew God, Mandela found himself suddenly in power after years hidden in prison.  God took those prison years and used them in Mandela’s life, transforming him into the kind of man who could lead the nation through the difficult years of transition.  God has had mercy on South Africa through his people.  There is a hidden yet powerful story of the influence of the Prince of Peace in the life of Nelson Mandela.  We give thanks to God for the legacy of Nelson Mandela. We pray with faith and trust today to that same Lord!


Steve Griffiths

OMF IHQ Prayers – Singapore

6th December 2013.

Reproduced by permission.


Richard Mcbee
January 26, 2017, 3:53PM
Steve Griffiths' article on Nelson Mandela and the influence of Christianity in his leadership is outstanding.

It is the factual essence of my historical fiction book, "The Ghosts of Ukuthula". I hope one day he has a chance to read the book and make comments on it.
Steve Griffiths
February 1, 2017, 2:07AM
Richard Mcbee,

Many thanks for your very kind comment about my short comment on Nelson Mandela, which I wrote for a daily in-house prayer time at the agency I work for. I'm amazed that this has provided you with a starting point for a historical fiction book! I will have a look on Amazon as you suggest.

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