Now that Former President Nelson Mandela has been buried I thought it appropriate to deal with an issue that was topical during the 10 day period of mourning and this is the issue of idolatry. The period of mourning and ceremonies surrounding Mandela’s death brought to bear issues of cultural differences and questions of whether or not this much-loved politician has been idolised.
Mandela has been referred to as a “global icon” and this showed in his memorial service and funeral which attracted people from all over the world. In fact the name Nelson Mandela has become a global brand which is estimated to be worth millions of dollars. This perhaps explains why two of Mandela’s granddaughters, Swati Dlamini and Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway, who were raised in the US, courted controversy by appearing in a reality show entitled “Being Mandela.”
The television series covered the private lives of these young women but many people felt that it was in bad taste and was exploiting the name of Nelson Mandela. In fact family members of Mandela have been accused of seeking to cash-in from their father’s image. Although the Nelson Mandela Foundation is the legal custodian of the Mandela brand there are over 100 registered companies that are associated with Mandela and this besides the many roads, buildings, parks, schools and bridges named after him.
The man has become so powerful that even his Robben Island prison number, 46664 has given birth to rock concerts, a clothing range, cell-phone starter packs, etc. Mandela’s birthday, July 18, is now sanctioned by the UN as “Mandela Day.” The question now is being asked: Have we not crossed the line from adoration to idolatry? Have we not conferred on Mandela a status akin to making him a saint or something extraordinary?
After his passing he was compared to Jesus, Moses, and other Biblical characters. A day after he was interred an R8 million statue of Nelson Mandela was unveiled at the Union Building in Pretoria. Many people believe that Mandela deserves this adulation because without him South Africa would not be where it is right now. Is this assertion correct and does it take God’s sovereignty into consideration? I believe there was an invisible hand in SA’s peaceful transition and that hand was God’s.
The idea that without the cooperation of men, God’s plan would not be fulfilled is false. Without our cooperation God’s plans can be delayed but not denied. God does not depend on us but we depend on him. Without Mandela South Africa would have achieved its freedom, maybe later and with much difficulty but it would have happened. Similarly, without Europe’s intervention, civilization would have reached Africa and this is a point I made to someone on Facebook who argued that Africans would still be wearing loinskins and practicing idolatry if Europeans had not set foot on this continent. This view assumes that Europeans have not only done Africans a favour but also did a favour for God, who presumably would not have been able to reach African people without the help of Europe. In this belief is the idea that Europeans are Africa’s saviours in the same way that some believe that Mandela was South Africa’s saviour. Both of these are examples of idolatry and exalting men to an undeserved status.
Earlier I mentioned the issue of SA’s cultural differences and indeed, these differences were evident around commemorations and ceremonies surrounding Mandela’s death. As was to be expected, Mandela’s funeral was conducted according to Xhosa rites and customs. At the centre of these rites is the veneration of the dead, which is a practice that is at the core of African Traditional Religion (ATR). ATR is a religion that predates Christianity in Africa and today many practice it in the guise of African culture.
In fact ATR has such a hold on African culture that it is difficult to tell the two apart. In South Africa many people who call themselves Christians are actually adherents of ATR who practice a hybrid religious system that consists of ATR and Christianity. This is what theologians call syncretism or religious mixture. I was not at Mandela’s funeral but I know that the ceremony would have included elements of both Christianity and ATR.
During Mandela’s memorial service which was broadcast to millions around the world, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is the African Union Commission chairman, said she knew the late statesman will continue to watch over us. For logistical reasons Mandela’s funeral should have been held in Pretoria but cultural considerations took pre-eminence. Although his was a state funeral with full military honours, it could not be held without including traditional rituals.
For instance when interviewed a few days before the funeral, Mandela family spokesman, General Themba Matanzima said the rituals will include a family elder informing the spirit of Madiba of his location whenever the body is being moved. If this is not done, he said, the spirit will become restless. If you have been following the news you would know that Mandela’s body was moved a few times and so you can imagine how many times his spirit had to be consulted.
Regarding the funeral, Timeslive reports that only 450 selected guests were allowed to accompany the body to the cemetery while the rest watched the proceedings on large screens. However, Mandela’s family requested that the final procedures of the burial not be filmed and you can imagine for yourself what took place at the graveside. My prayer is that Mandela’s grave be not made a shrine where people attempt to commune with him.
Mandela’s ideas will live with us but his spirit will not, as some have suggested. We must reject idolatry which is the diverting of worship from the Almighty to another entity.