‘There is no power on earth that can compare with religion’

Christianity may have been a private matter for Nelson Mandela but he had views on it, found comfort in it and drew direction from it. (Robben Island/Mayibuye Archives)

Christianity may have been a private matter for Nelson Mandela but he had views on it, found comfort in it and drew direction from it. (Robben Island/Mayibuye Archives)

Religion, especially belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, has always been a controversial subject that splits nations and even families. But it is always best to treat the relationship between a man and his god as a purely personal affair, a question of faith and not of logic. No one has the right to prescribe to others what they should or should not believe in.

From a letter to Mrs Deborah Opitz, written in Victor Verster prison, Paarl, May 10 1989

To share the sacrament as part of the tradition of my Church was important for me.
It gave me a sense of inner quiet and calm. I used to come away from these services feeling a new man.

From an interview with theologian Charles Villa-Vicencio, Johannesburg, 1993

I never abandoned my Christian beliefs.

From a conversation with Ahmed Kathrada, circa 1993 or 1994

I was, of course, baptised in the Wesleyan Church, and went to its missionary schools. Outside and here I remain a staunch member but one’s church outlook tends to broaden and to welcome efforts towards denominational unity.

From a letter to Mrs N Thulare, written on Robben Island, July 19 1977

At Fort Hare I even became a Sunday school teacher.

From a letter to Makaziwe Mandela, written on Robben Island, March 27 1977

Let’s say I am interested in all attempts to discover the meaning and purpose of life. Religion is an important part of this exercise.

From an interview with Charles Villa-Vicencio, Johannesburg, 1993

I have always regarded the multiplicity of gods in Greek mythology as yet another manifestation of the widespread belief that the destiny of all natural and human affairs is in the hands of the divinities whose superhuman excellence is a source of inspiration and hope to all creation, an excellence which will ultimately rule the world.

From a letter to Fatima Meer, written on Robben Island, January 1 1979

Religion is about mutual love and respect for one another and for life itself. It is about the dignity and equality of humankind made in the image of God.

From an interview with theologian Charles Villa-Vicencio, Johannesburg, 1993

At least there was one thing in which both the adherents of the scriptures as well as atheists were agreed: belief in the existence of beings with superhuman powers indicates what man would like to be and how throughout the centuries he has fought against all kinds of evil and strived for a virtuous life.

From a letter to Fatima Meer, written on Robben Island, January 1 1979

Men of vision have proclaimed the gospel that we live in one world, face common social problems and that justice and peace bring security and joy to men.

From a letter to Helen Joseph, written on Robben Island, March 11 1979

In spite of his friendship with Christians, my father remained aloof from Christianity and instead pinned his own faith on Qamata, the god of his fathers.

From an unpublished autobiographical manuscript, written on Robben Island, 1976

In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides.

From a letter to Winnie Mandela, written on Robben Island, December 9 1979

I have my own beliefs as to the existence or nonexistence of a Supreme Being and it is possible that one could easily explain why mankind has from time immemorial believed in the existence of a god.

From a letter to Makaziwe Mandela, written on Robben Island, March 27 1977

The spirit of reconciliation and the goodwill within the nation can, to a great measure, be attributed to the moral and spiritual interventions of the religious community.

Annual Methodist Church conference, Mthatha, September 18 1994

All South Africans must be free to practise any religion of their choice.

23rd anniversary of the Gospel Church of Power of RSA, Bhisho, September 10 1995

What challenges us is to ensure that none should enjoy lesser rights and none tormented because they are born different, hold contrary political views or pray to God in a different manner.

Special commemorative meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, New York City, October 23 1995

All the major religions teach the importance of peace and reconciliation. But they also insist that with reconciliation must come an end to injustice.

Opening of the Young Christian Workers Council, Oukasie, Brits, November 26 1995

In the building of our new nation, reconstruction goes hand in hand with reconciliation. We look to the church, with its message of justice, peace, forgiveness and healing, to play a key role in helping our people, of every colour, to move from the divisions of the past to a future that is united in a commitment to correct wrongs and restore a just order.

Thanksgiving service on Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s retirement, Cape Town, June 23 1996

There is no power on earth that can compare with religion. That’s why I respect it.

From a BBC documentary, 1996

As with other aspects of its heritage, African traditional religion is increasingly recognised for its contribution to the world. No longer seen as despised superstition which had to be superseded by superior forms of belief: today its enrichment of humanity’s spiritual heritage is acknowledged.

As in the new global order, no country, region or continent can any longer operate in isolation from the rest of the world. No social movement in any country or continent can isolate itself from similar movements coexisting within it. This would apply to religion as much as anything else living in a society.

Lecture at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, UK, July 11 1997

The moral decay of some communities in various parts of the world reveals itself among others in the use of the name of God to justify the maintenance of actions which are condemned by the entire world as crimes against humanity.

From the unpublished sequel to his autobiography, circa 1998

We shall have to reach deep into the wells of our human faith as we approach the new century. No less than in any other period of history, religion will have a crucial role to play in guiding and inspiring humanity to meet the enormous challenges that we face.

You would have to have been in a South African jail under apartheid where you could see the cruelty of human beings to each other in its naked form. But it was again religious institutions, Hindus, Muslims, leaders of the Jewish faith, Christians, it was them who gave us hope that one day we would come out. We would return.

Address to the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Cape Town, December 1999

Conversations

From Nelson Mandela’s conversations in 1992 and 1993 with Richard Stengel in the finalising of Long Walk to Freedom for publication.

Stengel: I was reading about — speaking of Christmas — when churchmen, religious people would come to the island to preach services. Now I have some names of people: Reverend Bosman, Reverend Jones, Father Hughes, who is Anglican, who was apparently someone that people liked. Was that just for every Sunday or special occasions?

Mandela: Well, they came every Sunday in rotation. And, no, they conducted ordinary services, but some of them, like Father Hughes, were people who had seen life. He had fought in World War II and he, what you call, he was with the submarines, and he would tell you stories of their adventures in the course of his sermonses [sic], and they were very beautiful things to listen to.

And then you had a chap called Reverend Scheffer — S-C-H-E-F-F-E-R. Now he was of the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa and a sister church of the Dutch Reformed Church. Now this was a fellow who, when he came, avoided coming to our section and went to the bigger section and he was very contemptuous, very abusive, and he would say to our chaps: “You think that you are freedom fighters, you must have been drunk with dagga and liquor, you know, when you were arrested.”

So we insisted that he should come to our side and he eventually came. But we worked on him, explaining to him who we are, why we are in jail, and he later became one of the most helpful preachers because, in the first place, he was well read. And I remember one sermon that he gave of the three wise men from …

Stengel: Do you remember the sermon?

Mandela: Now, Reverend Scheffer told us, in one of his sermonses [sic], told us about the three wise men from the East who followed a star until the star was over Jerusalem, I’m not sure, I think that was the town, but in Israel.

Now, he says, he said, this was not just a superstition, it is something which is recorded in history because there was a year, which is known to science, where a group of stars came together, came close together and sent to Earth a powerful light and so he says, we can therefore — and then the stars appeared to move from the East to West — and he says: “Therefore we can scientifically establish that this event took place.”

Well, I was not there to verify whether that was true or not but the approach, the scientific approach on his part, was always fascinating to me and I hardly ever failed to attend his sermon, because it was voluntary.

Stengel: Right.

Mandela: And I was friendly to all these priests. So that fellow was really very good, Scheffer, and very amusing also. He says: “Well you people, we have a difficult task whenever there is a problem because we have to find a solution.”

He says: “Well you people have got an easy answer, whenever there is a problem, you say, ‘ngabelungu’.” Now “ngabelungu” means “it’s the whites”. “Whatever problem you have, you say it’s the whites, but he would put it in the African language — can I just write it down for you? — “it is the whites” — in other words, “you say, when you have a problem, it is the whites and that is all”. Whereas they, as the whites, will have to try and find solutions for a problem.

And he had, he was very humorous, but humorous in the course of delivering a very powerful sermon, very serious. And those are the chaps, therefore, you listen to and you come out, you know, feeling that you have gained something.

And there was also a chap called Wiggerty, Father Wiggerty — W-I-G-G-E-R-T-Y — who told us the circumstances under which the Bible was written. He says, if you look at various testaments, you will see sometimes there is a conflict about the same thing, the story is not the same, it’s told differently by the various disciples. And he says: “Now look at our situation here today. There are about 25 of you in this sermon, the sun is shining. I have given you a sermons [sic] here but just imagine what would happen 30 years later, if you are now asked to give, to describe, this sermon that I gave today. What did I say? How many were you? What the weather was?”

He says: “There will be as many versions as you are, as there are many of you, because you never thought that you would ever be asked about today and therefore you will now be relying on your recollections and your recollections will not necessarily be identical.”

So you had fellows, you know, who could talk to you, a lot of sense and who more or less knew the type of people, congregation, they were preaching to. That these were men, you know, who were looking for solutions.

Stengel: Right.

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Stengel: I wanted to pick up where we left off the other day. You were talking about Reverend Scheffer, do you remember?

Mandela: Yes.

Stengel: And there were two things that you said that he said, that interested me. One was his scientific approach to religion. Why did that interest you? Why did you find that appealing?

Mandela: Well, to anybody who is involved in politics, you do want to be objective in analysing, in making any assessment, or in sharing know-ledge. And there is a great deal in religion which does not stand the test of scientific analysis.

Religion depends on belief, not on logic and, but sometimes, you would like to investigate the origin of an idea in the Bible and what lessons you can draw from the experiences which are outlined in the Bible and when there is a scientific basis, then it throws a new light, because the Bible itself is a great, a very great literature.

Stengel: Did it make you more inclined to believe the revelations in the Bible because he said there was some scientific underpinning?

Mandela: No, I mean, as far as the Bible is concerned, it is quite clear that, especially the testaments, it is quite clear that there is some factual basis for them.

It’s essentially a question of faith, not so much a question of logic, but some people can give such explanations [coughs] of what appears in the Bible, such scientific explanation, that you go beyond belief; it carries conviction and you feel that now there is an objective basis for this statement.

Stengel: You mentioned that Reverend Scheffer also said to you that it’s easy for all of you because you just say, “ngabelungu”?

Mandela: Yes. Ngabelungu.

Stengel: It is the whites? How did that make you feel, when he said that?

Mandela: Well, it was true. I mean in a general way. I mean it doesn’t express the whole truth but it is true that some people just resort to that — you are faced with a problem, especially those problems which affect colour relations, and they just say, “well, it’s the whites, ngabelungu”. That’s true.

And we loved it, you know, because it was a bit of a joke and at the same time an expression of the truth.

u

Stengel: In fact, I wanted to ask you about one of the — someone who, a minister, who came and gave you communion? I think while you were in Pollsmoor ... but I don’t remember his name?

Mandela: No, the missionaries did come to Pollsmoor but then they had limited it just to the Methodist Church, my church.

Stengel: Oh, in Pollsmoor?

Mandela: Well, from Pollsmoor already. But, in Pollsmoor, when we arrived, they continued the same system as in Robben Island, where we used to go to ... various churches. They stopped it in Pollsmoor. And they say a person can 
only go to the church ... where he is a member. Can’t go to the others, because they could 
see the influence, the impact we were making on all missionaries and they didn’t like that.

And before that, there was a minister of the Anglican Church, when it was said that I was a communist, he came out to say this is not true.

Stengel: Dudley Moore?

Mandela: No no, not Dudley Moore. Dudley Moore was the minister of the Methodist Church, my minister.

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Stengel: So, Reverend Moore would come every Sunday to you at Pollsmoor, and there were a number of prisoners that he preached to, or was it just you?

Mandela: No, just me, because I was alone.

Stengel: Right. So would he just give, would he preach to you, would …

Mandela: Yes, yes, yes. He would read scripture, selected texts and talked to me.

Stengel: And it was a two-way conversation?

Mandela: No. No, no. I would just listen. No, you don’t do that in a church service …

Stengel: Yes …. but …

Mandela: It was a church service in the proper sense of the word. And, of course, the warder. There would be a warder there, yes.

Stengel: Oh, of course, I see. I see. But you were a congregation of one.

Mandela: Yes. Yes.

Stengel: And then he would give you communion?

Mandela: Communion, yes.

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