The world held its breath that day in 1990. What would Nelson Mandela say? What could he say after 27 years of imprisonment by a repressive regime? One word of rancor or bitterness and his country of South Africa would become engulfed by an inferno of revenge and retaliation. Amazingly his speech was filled with words of profuse gratitude as well as warning. He ended by invoking the words he used at his trial in 1964. “I have fought against White domination, and I have fought against Black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realized. But, my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Bishop Desmond Tutu, the future chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, called Mr. Mandela a man of “extraordinary magnanimity” who would share power with his enemies, self-limit his political aspirations, and even hire his jailer.
So it was that on a warm summer day, February 11, I was privileged to be a silent witness to history. I found myself standing in the crowd, in front of Cape Town City Hall to welcome Nelson Mandela as he came out of prison. Walter Sisulu, who had spent many years with Mr. Mandela on Robben Island, took the microphone. “I now present to you the great leader who has been in jail for 27 years; who has done everything for your freedom. I therefore present Nelson Mandela to you.” A roar of jubilation went up from the crowd as they heard Mr. Mandela’s first word: “Amandla.” “Awethu,” the crowd responded. John Battersby, of the Christian Science Monitor, said that we were watching “history and legend merging and becoming reality.”
I had arrived in Johannesburg two days earlier, unaware this would be one of the most momentous weeks in the history of South Africa. Then a quick trip to Cape Town the following day had afforded us the rare privilege of meeting with South African president F. W. de Klerk and his foreign minister, Pik Botha.
The president came into the room like a man on a mission: resolute, determined, fully aware that the weight of history sat squarely upon his shoulders. After polite diplomatic pleasantries, he got straight to the point. “You have come a long way to remind us apartheid is wrong,” he said, but you must understand you are now “preaching to the choir. We know it is wrong, but we need time to change it.” In the meeting, President de Klerk never hinted to the breakneck speed with which he was moving South Africa to a true democracy, one in which the principle of majority rule would be enshrined. Neither did he intimate to us that the very next day he would be meeting with Nelson Mandela to confirm with him the date of his release. Then, at a press conference that next day, on February 10, President de Klerk stunned the world by announcing that Nelson Mandela, after spending 27 years in prison, most of them on the infamous Robben Island, would be released the very next day.
Nelson Mandela was arrested that last time on August 5, 1962, at the age of 44. He would spend the next 27 years of his life a silent yet powerful advocate for the demise of apartheid. The hardships borne at the hands of the racist apartheid regime would eventually catapult him to the pinnacle of political achievement. Without benefit of an army, navy, or air force, he would assume his nation’s reins in large measure by, literally, suffering himself into power. To Mr. Mandela’s mind, his imprisonment was necessary, for there was no way a political system that “inequitable and unjust in its essence could be modified.” It had to be radically transformed.
Throughout his years of captivity Mr. Mandela remained steadfast in his belief that a nonracial democracy could be peacefully rebuilt from the ashes of apartheid. This man with a warm smile and a forgiving heart would have the opportunity to counsel a nation back from the brink of extinction. Yet it was not until the ripe old age of 75 that he could cast his first vote in a new post-apartheid South Africa.
Some might not naturally see Nelson Mandela as a champion for religious freedom. But in a profound way he was one of the greatest heroes for religious freedom in modern memory, not only because of what he built up, but because of what he dedicated his life to—the tearing down of the system and dogma of apartheid.
The ugly truth is that, at its core, apartheid was state enforcement of a religio-political miscreation that denigrated humanity and violated the sacred ground of conscience. The power of a nation state was used to enforce a misguided theological belief, the profane religious teaching that all men were not created equal, and were not endowed with unalienable rights of life and liberty. The church provided the state theological underpinnings for the belief that people of color were cursed by God and were only to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”—the manual laborers referred to in Joshua 9:21. It taught that race mingling and miscegenation was prohibited by the biblical injunction to be separate (Genesis 11; 2 Corinthians 6:17). And though all men might have the same blood, according to Acts 17:26, God hath determined the times before appointed, and the “bounds of their habitation,” declaring His will that geographic boundaries and borders be set, drawn and determined by race. Early military victories of the Boers over African natives were seen as a sign of divine election and were taken as a mandate from God to extend ethnic and racial domination over conquered tribes—a kind of Kuyperesque extension of the sovereignty of Christ. This strange amalgamation of theology, race pride, and ethnic entitlement became a state idol from which worship was either compelled or coerced.
According to the Kairos Document, published in 1985 by a group of Black South African theologians, this church-state idol is “the god of teargas, rubber bullets, sjamboks, prison cells, and death sentences,” “the very opposite of the God of the Bible”—“the devil disguised as Almighty God.” “State Theology,” the theologians stated, “is not only heretical, it is blasphemous, and “the church cannot collaborate with tyranny.”
Searching for the genesis of apartheid uncovers no theological smoking gun, no clear manifesto one can point to before 1948. Instead, coming from a jangled web of theological confusion and delusion, the birth of apartheid was, at best, historically complicated.
In the early 1500s Johann Boemus (1485-1535), a German Hebrew scholar, considered to be the first true scientific ethnographer, put forward the theological postulate that the barbarous peoples of Africa were the cursed descendants of Ham. On the soil of southern Africa this teaching would be fused with a perversion of John Calvin’s (1509-1564) doctrine of predestination. In this convenient iteration God had made a covenant with the racially favored, superior Boers, to have dominion over the “obviously damned” Bantu bushmen. So out of this religio-political nuptial, apartheid was born.
In 1948 the National Party, often called the Dutch Reformed Church at prayer, declared apartheid to be merely “separation on Christian principles of justice and reasonableness.” It fell to President Malan, an ordained minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, to implement it, and President Verwoerd, whose father was an assistant evangelist in the Dutch Reformed Church, to enforce what he described as a benevolent policy of “good neighborliness.” The lead article for the September 22, 1948, issue of the Dutch Reformed Church’s official newspaper, Die Kerkbode, read: “As a church we have . . . striven constantly for the separation of these two national groups [White and Black]. In this regard one can correctly refer to apartheid as church policy.” In the April 19, 1950, issue they wrote: “White guardianship is not so much a right as a high calling . . . because we have not just a policy, but a message: the everlasting gospel.” At the high point of the world’s opposition to apartheid, the Dutch Reformed Church was even receiving money from secret government funds to develop and disseminate effective counterarguments, to fight what was seen as theological propaganda emanating from the World Council of Churches, opposition to apartheid. At its height, the grip of apartheid seemed unbreakable.
Born July 18, 1918, Rolihlahla Mandela was the great-grandson of the ruler of the Thembu people in the Transkei. A product of Christian education, Rolihlahla was sent at the age of 7 by his devout Methodist mother to the Clarkebury Methodist Missionary School in the Eastern Cape. Upon baptism his English teacher gave him the name Nelson.
In 1937 at the age of 19 Mr. Mandela enrolled in Healdtown Wesleyan College at Beaufort. It was there that he met Seth Motikimi, who served as chaplain at the college from 1937 to 1951. Chaplain Motikimi had a “tremendous impact on me,” said Mr. Mandela later. “He really molded me. He influenced us. Of course we tried in our small ways to imitate him, but we did not have the courage. It is good when you have heroes around you. Reverend Mokitimi was a hero.” Two years after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 Seth Mokitimi would go on to become the first Black minister to be elected as the leader of any major church denomination in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela’s journey to Nobel Peace Prize winner and caretaker of a peaceful transition to power in South Africa was a circuitous one. But it was no accident that his faith and convictions were framed by one of the few faith traditions that dared to officially oppose apartheid. Though complicated by paradox and controversy, Mr. Mandela’s faith and worldview were nurtured in one of the most anti-apartheid faith traditions in South Africa, the Methodist Church. At a September 18, 1994, address to the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church, Mr. Mandela said: “I cannot overemphasize the role that the Methodist Church has played in my own life . . . . It is fitting that this conference is taking place in this particular chamber, after the advent of democracy in our country. The Methodist Church was the only Church to be declared an illegal organization under apartheid, and for ten long years you were forbidden to operate in Transkei bantustan. It is in this very chamber that this banning order was promulgated.”
From the onset of apartheid, English religious denominations, while not always shining examples of racial enlightenment, faced off with the Dutch Reformed Church over apartheid. Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Catholics, and, most notably, the Methodist church of South Africa, rejected apartheid. Before the Group Areas Act of 1950 and the Separate Amenities Act of 1953, with some notable exceptions Black and White Methodists worshipped and studied together. Those laws making it unlawful to attend churches across racial lines were seen as a vile affront to their religious freedoms and commitment to remain, if only structurally, a racially integrated denomination. The members of the church were instructed to find ways of loving the nation, but not the nation’s sins.
In 1966 the Central Methodist Mission, on Buitenkant Street, Cape Town, provided transportation for their multiracial congregation when the national government implemented the forced territorial segregation of their congregants to separate racial areas. In protest a plaque was placed conspicuously in the front of the church reading: “All who pass by remember with shame the many thousands of people who lived for generations in district six and other parts of this city, and were forced by law to leave their homes because of the color of their skins. Father, forgive us . . .”
The Methodist Church understood that freedom is threatened not only by prohibitions enacted by the state but also by church collusion with it. Clearly members of all faiths shared, as Bishop Tutu said, in the “maintenance and collaboration of apartheid’s unjust laws.” One of the most powerful documents I have ever read is “ Statement of Confession” submitted by my church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South Africa, to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is a poignant warning to those who oppose the state enforcement of religious beliefs: to be voiceless in the face of religious tyranny is to be complicit with it. It reads: “We confess that we were altogether too caught up with maintaining our traditional apolitical stance with regard to the separation of church and state to effectively combat the viciousness of apartheid. Under the pressure of the times we allowed the structures of the church to gradually become patterned along the lines of apartheid, by providing separate church regional organizations for different racial groups within the church. We failed to realize that the state demanded of its citizens things to which it had no claim and that, as Christians, we should have resisted this usurpation of God’s authority to the uttermost…. We commit ourselves, therefore, once again and all the more earnestly to the proclamation of the eternal gospel of the universality of God’s love; the denouncement of the Babylonian captivity of the church in which it sells its soul to the state; and the articulation of a more effective and clear warning against the worship of the beast that civil-religious concoction of blasphemy, coercion, human arrogance, and injustice that seems to find root all too easily in our midst (Revelation 14:6-11).”
The house of racism built by church and state would be dismantled in part by the efforts of the abolitionist faiths of South Africa and the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.
I was privileged to meet Mr. Mandela on several occasions and to be in South Africa during the campaigning and lead-up to his election as president. I pray that his transformative vision will continue to bring peace and religious freedom to South Africa.
Nelson Mandela once said that we serve a Messiah “whose life bears testimony to the truth that there is no shame in being persecuted: Those who should be shamed are they who persecute others.
“Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being conquered: Those who should be ashamed are they who conquer others.”
On December 15, 2013, millions of us around the world gathered by television to say goodbye to one of the greatest champions for peace, equality, and religious freedom the world has ever known. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had gone from church school innocence to daring dissident, from Sunday school teacher to tactical agitator, from calculating barrister to contentious activist. History, I think, will long celebrate his achievements and not much remember his flaws; we will continue to celebrate his unlikely ascension from prisoner to president and the dismantling of the church-state idol known as apartheid.
Author: Wintley Phipps
Wintley Phipps, an internationally-acclaimed vocalist, is currently the pastor of the Palm Bay Seventh-day Adventist Church in Florida. He is also the founder, president, and chief executive officer of the U.S Dream Academy, Inc., www.usdreamacademy.org, a national after-school program that aims to break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration by giving children the skills and vision necessary to lead productive and fulfilling lives.