Mandela and the confessions of a closet Christian

Nelson Mandela was apparently a man of great faith, who kept his Christian beliefs discreet in favour of his great life work of reconciliation. That is the picture emerging from a number of ministers who regularly met to pray with Mandela in prison as well as throughout the latter part of his life.

"He was a deeply religious man; he believed sincerely in the existence of the Almighty," said Bishop Don Dabula, who first met Mandela in 1962 and met to pray with him whenever he was at his home in Qunu.

The former president had the last rites administered by a Methodist minister in his Houghton home as he was nearing death on Thursday night last week. Nearby, in a private room, long-time friend Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana said Mandela's favourite blessing as he died.

"I asked not to be in the room when he died," said Mpumlwana, who had prayed at the family home regularly towards the end of Mandela's life. He looked at the time midway during what he knew was Mandela's favourite blessing and saw it was 8.49pm.

He chanted the words that always made the elderly statesman's face light up when he heard them:

"May the Lord bless you and keep you.

"May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.

"May the Lord look upon you with kindness, and give you peace."

"I later realised that was when he died," Mpumlwana said.

Mandela's universal appeal 
It is testament to Mandela's universal appeal that he has been claimed to be everything from a communist to a true liberal by his many admirers. And the image of the father of South Africa's secular democracy as being deeply religious may well sit uncomfortably with some. But Mandela's relationship with religion was always significant, if muted.

He was raised and schooled as a Methodist, an experience he recalled fondly in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela was married to his third wife, Graça Machel, by the then head of the South African Methodist church, Bishop Mvume Dandala.

At a religious conference in 1999, he said: "Without the church, without religious institutions, I would never have been here today … Religion was one of the motivating factors in everything we did."

But Mandela held an aversion to speaking publicly about his own faith for fear of dividing or – even worse – using religion as a political tool, as the apartheid regime did.

Photograph by Madelene Cronje

"The [apartheid] policy was supported by the Dutch Reformed Church, which furnished apartheid with its religious underpinnings by suggesting that Afrikaners were God's chosen people and that blacks were a subservient species," he wrote in his autobiography. "In the Afrikaner's world view, apartheid and the church went hand in hand."

University of Pretoria theologian Professor Graham Duncan said Mandela and his peers wanted to avoid this distortion.

Mandela's religious beliefs
"He made a concerted effort, certainly in the casting of the Constitution, to make sure there was an entirely new dispensation that will never embrace one faith or one segment of a faith," Duncan said, referring to the apartheid regime's niche Calvinist ideology.

Accordingly, Mandela kept his religious beliefs very much to himself.

"When he confirmed his own faith as a Christian, he always said he was careful not to say that too loudly because of his commitment to an interfaith experience in South Africa," Mpumlwana said. "He did not want to be misunderstood to be partisan."

Mpumlwana met Mandela and Walter Sisulu for the first time in Pollsmoor prison in 1986.

"From then, both he and Mr Sisulu referred to me as ‘my priest'," Mpumlwana said, laughing.

"When they came out, we continued that relationship and I would visit him either here or in Qunu."

Mandela was a master of the quip, and his favoured line for the minister was that he had to stay close to them "because they [ministers] open the doors over there".

But there was another line that was more famous when he spoke about heaven, laughed Mpumlwana. "When he gets to heaven, he'll look for an ANC branch – and if there isn't one, he'll form it."

Loyal Mandela
Mandela was incredibly loyal to his party and his faith came into service through his work in the ANC.

Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Mandela's friend and fellow Nobel laureate, previously spoke about Mandela's approach to faith in a television interview with John Carlin for the United States's PBS channel.

"I think it was a very, very private part of his life, and he didn't find it easy to invoke or … I mean a lot of his people said that [Mandela] would have won over many others if he had made some reference to God. And we should respect the fact that he refused to manipulate religion in that kind of way."

Pretoria University's Duncan agreed, saying Mandela had used religion to a far more limited extent than his successors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma.

"You didn't see him, like Thabo Mbeki, talking of the 'RDP of the soul'," Duncan said. "Zuma is more populist … he espouses a very right-wing faith of the Pentecostal and evangelical movement."

It is a path that can be dangerous, as Mandela foresaw. His life's work was to unite people across race, gender and even religion.

"He was a man of great faith – he believed in God – but he was bigger than one denomination, even though he was a Methodist," said Bishop Johannes Seoka, president of the South African Council of Churches.

The head of the Methodist Church in South Africa, Bishop Zipho Siwa, agreed: "He is a leader whose role was to unite everybody."

As Mandela's death reverberated around the world last week, religious leaders joined the chorus of tributes, each describing a man who seemed to know and understand their faith intimately.

In a meeting with a Hare Krishna swami, who quoted excerpts from the religion's founding text, Mandela finished his quotes, challenging him to find a part he did not know.

Ultimately, his faith, like everything else about Mandela, played to the great theme of his life: reconciliation.

This was illustrated in a 1994 speech to the Zion Christian Church Easter conference, in which he said: "The good news was borne by our risen Messiah, who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language,  who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind." – Additional reporting by Sipho Kings

In life as in art, Madiba had the traits of a South African messiah

In the famous struggle play Woza Albert!, the protagonists envision a resurrected Christ returning to apartheid South Africa.

The government locks him up on Robben Island for being a "communist agitator". But Christ, or Morena as he is called in Sesotho, simply walks back to freedom across the Atlantic Ocean.

It was an intentional parallel with Nelson Mandela, who was still imprisoned in 1981 when Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon wrote the play, while the world campaigned for his freedom.

Mandela's moral stature as a leader has inevitably invoked messianic imagery in the outpouring of grief after his death.

"The notion of a messiah is very prominent within the Abrahamic religions: the desire for a leader anointed by God," said Denzil Chetty, an academic at Unisa's department of religious studies.

"Mandela exhibits the traits of a South African messiah: a son born from the soil of Africa, who felt the pain and endured the struggle of the people."

The enormity of his act of forgiveness and inspiring South Africans likewise to forgive and to be free, as well as the ­sacrifice of the best years of his life, speaks to a messianic role. And his release from jail after 27 long years became something of a second coming.

BBC presenter Evan Davis told listeners that Mandela should be ranked alongside Jesus in "the pantheon of virtue" and the political editor of the Telegraph, Peter Oborne, wrote: "There are very few human beings who can be compared to Jesus Christ. Nelson Mandela is one."

The comparison provoked something of a backlash.

Indeed, Mandela himself "never failed to affirm that he was only human", said Chetty. He once said of himself: "I'm not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."

Theology professor Graham Duncan said the picture of Mandela will hopefully become more balanced over time. "Some faults will critically come under review after all this is over, to balance the picture," he said. "I don't think South Africa's history can be built on a romantic image of Mandela – he himself always spoke against that view." – Verashni Pillay

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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