By John W. de Gruchy
Prior to his inauguration as President of the post-apartheid Republic of South Africa, Nelson Mandela attended Mass one Sunday morning at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Cape Town. The event created a stir that included a query from the Vatican on whether giving him Communion was appropriate under canon law. The answer was simple: “Would you have turned Nelson Mandela away from the altar?” Nothing more needed to be said. Although the apartheid government had hid his image for 27 years, permitting no photographs, he was already instantly recognisable. Before long he became a global icon of justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
A few weeks after his release from prison, Mandela had an informal meeting with a group of religious leaders in Cape Town who had been involved in the struggle against apartheid. His arrival in the room was electric, his warmth and humility immediately apparent, and his expressions of gratitude as he greeted each of us with a handshake and smile, knowing most names, was spontaneous. Our role in the struggle was incomparable to his, and mine was miniscule in comparison with most, but for him we were all part of a great and noble enterprise. He never failed to acknowledge that he was part of a team, even though he towered over all of us. He was not grasping for power but seeking to serve. Who could not be proud to acknowledge him as our leader, and be glad to be alive at that hour?
Not long after this encounter, Mandela met a larger ecumenical group of clergy at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral for a morning-long discussion about future church-state relations. He spoke at length and he did so extemporarily. His presentation was well-constructed, informed, and to the point. Just as he had long reflected on how best to engage in the struggle against apartheid, and the kind of country that should emerge from the ruins of apartheid, so he had obviously given thought to the role that faith communities should play in the new South Africa. During discussion he took note of the issues raised, and welcomed the concerns expressed. He thought it might be a positive step to establish a ministry to deal with church affairs; some of us said that this was not a good idea as it might lead to being co-opted by the state. After a moment of reflection he agreed and the matter was dropped.
Mandela’s character was shaped by his royal background, which prepared him for leadership and service. From early on he learnt from his elders what this meant, and began to recognise that his life could never be his own. This sense that the struggle would become his life was reinforced as he participated in the work of the African National Congress, which he would eventually lead to victory.
Mandela was also an alumnus of Healdtown College in the Eastern Cape, a distinguished Methodist mission school whose influence complemented his upbringing with the best of Christian values. He was one of the many African leaders in whom the finest values of culture and Christianity were naturally and creatively mixed, and who in the course of time became the great humanist leaders of African liberation and renaissance.
During his years as a prisoner on Robben Island, Mandela regularly received Communion from the visiting Methodist chaplain who at one time was Theo Kotze, well-known for his role in the church struggle against apartheid. Amongst his close friends in prison was Robert Sobukwe, a Methodist lay preacher and leader of the Pan Africanist Movement. But it was entirely appropriate that, after his release from prison and during his term of office as President, he did not identify himself solely with any denomination. He attended services in different churches, mosques, and synagogues. Quite apart from his friendships with many Christian clergy, notably Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he was also a friend of chief rabbi Cyril Harris and other religious leaders. Mandela may not fulfil all the criteria formally required for canonization in the Church, and he made no pretensions about being a saint or even a devout Christian. He was a truly remarkable human being who embraced others with warmth, humour, and compassion, but equally a hero who led from the front and did not hesitate to speak out against injustice and those who behaved badly.
In popular culture, icons abound as they do in politics and sport. Often media-made, they may attract millions of devoted followers, and hold sway over them but for a brief moment in time until attention turns elsewhere. In Christian tradition, the status of icon is not readily granted. Icons have gravitas, they are venerable, but above all they point beyond themselves to something greater than who they are: to values that transcend and refuse our manipulation, to the source of hope and the fountain of life, to the God who is beyond and yet in our midst.
There is, of course, a danger in giving Mandela such iconic status. It could depersonalise or even divinize him, preventing a true and honest portrait of the man emerging as we mull over his life and legacy. Leaders are human and, no matter how good, never beyond critique. But the truly great amongst them make no pretentious claims and seek no honours; it is their humility, integrity, and the nature of their achievements that attract us into their orbit to acknowledge their iconic status.
True icons are not defined by ethnicity, gender, or nationality; they irradiate an inclusive charisma that defies narrow boundaries. Mandela is a uniquely African icon, a South African of the 20th century. But he is also an icon of and for humanity struggling for dignity in a world that too often trashes the image of God in human beings. His moral stature reduces to size most other political leaders, and after a century that was too often controlled by evil dictatorships, he gives us reason to believe again in the human capacity for good, and in the rightness of the cause of justice and peace as we travel deeper into this new millennium. He might not be the icon of a particular religion, but he is an icon of what it means to be human, opposing evil, enduring suffering, overcoming bitterness, expressing forgiveness.
Such icons can never be confined to any one place, time, or denomination, or be closeted in sanctuaries. They are carried by pilgrims of a new humanity as they journey. South Africans need to carry the Mandela icon into the future as we struggle with the immense challenges now facing us; but so, too, does the global community, for our destinies are inseparable, as is our struggle for the more humane world to which Mandela devoted his life.
John W. de Gruchy is emeritus professor of Christian studies at the University of Cape Town.