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Nelson Mandela: reflections on his life

13 December 2013


From the Rt Revd John D. Davies
Sir, - Among the many and varied tributes paid to Nelson Mandela, there is one, apparently obvious, fact that does not appear to have received as much notice as perhaps it might: namely, that he was able to live to a fine old age and die in his bed.

In this, he was so different from many other leaders of the 20th century: Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, the Kennedy brothers, Archbishops Romero and Luwum, and, in South Africa, Steve Biko and Chris Hani.

This is an obvious fact, yes, but nearly 50 years ago it seemed very unlikely. In May 1964, Mr Mandela and his colleagues were found guilty of sabotage and treason - offences for which the normal penalty was death. Most of white South Africa looked forward hopefully to the passing of such a sentence; the rest of us looked forward to the sentencing with dread.

At last, after three weeks' deliberating, on 6 June, Judge Quartus de Wet surprised us all with the sentence: life imprisonment with hard labour. A terrible and punitive sentence, but it gave that prisoner the opportunity to live, and to become what he became. So, thank God for that judge, who, with whatever intention, gave Nelson Mandela back to the world.

Mission priest and university chaplain in South Africa, 1957-70
Nyddfa, ByPass Road
Gobowen SY11 3NG

From the Revd James Shakespeare
Sir, - The world is moved by the passing of Nelson Mandela, whose life and work is universally respected, and whose legacy may yet inspire a quest for peace among world leaders. It is interesting, however, in the context of Mark Vernon's article on secular spirituality (Comment, 6 December), that the press doesn't acknowledge the Christian roots of Mr Mandela's vision.

Commentators note the transforming impact of Mr Mandela's offer of forgiveness to his past oppressors, and his commitment to reconciliation, a non-violent path to racial harmony. They fail, however, to recognise the spiritual dynamic at work in the miraculous transition from apartheid to a democratic free South Africa, under Mr Mandela's leadership.

Mr Mandela was raised in the Methodist Church, his experience in prison for 27 years had a quasi-monastic character to it, and, on his release, he worked closely with the Anglican Church, as it developed a practical theology of forgiveness, truth, and reconciliation. How else could one man's experience of injustice and violence be transformed into forgiveness, moral courage, and peace?

I had the privilege of serving within the Church in South Africa as a theological student in 1998, when there was a remarkable atmosphere of hope and optimism. Serving in a township and at St George's Cathedral, attending hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and meeting Archbishop Tutu, I had no doubt about the Christian influence on Mr Mandela's leadership. Seeing his prison cell on Robben Island brought home to me a miracle of resurrection forged out of the crucible of human suffering.

Is this not an opportune moment for the Anglican Church, as it has witnessed to its transforming role in the past, to celebrate the way in which Mr Mandela's life has been shaped by Christian values, and to tell this part of the story to a watching world?

The Rectory, Dingley Road
Great Bowden
Market Harborough LE16 7ET

From Canon John Young
Sir, - My friend is a retired Methodist missionary who served in South Africa. She answered her phone one evening to find Nelson Mandela on the line. He was ringing from Buckingham Palace, during a State Visit, to thank her for visiting him in prison on Robben Island. Your readers may be moved, as I was, by his gratitude and humility.

72 Middlethorpe Grove
York YO24 1JY

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