The measure of Nelson Mandela


His death was expected but the world’s reaction to it caught many of us by surprise. The measure of the person former President Nelson Mandela was has become clear even to those who consider themselves to be apolitical. Since his passing at 20h50 last week Thursday the name Nelson Mandela has been making headlines around the world and it looks like the status quo will remain until he is buried this coming Sunday.

In his memorial service on Tuesday over 90 world leaders were present, including the President of the United States of America, Barrack Obama who, in his eulogy, referred to Mandela as “the last great liberator of the 20th century.” Not only was Mandela a liberator but he was also a reconciler as was seen with Obama shaking the hand of Raul Castro, the brother of the former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a long time nemesis of America.

United States President Barrack Obama speaking at the memorial service of Nelson Mandela.
United States President Barrack Obama speaking at the memorial service of Nelson Mandela.

Thousands of people braved the rain to attend the memorial service at FNB Soccer Stadium and many millions around the world followed it on different media platforms. From Wednesday (December 11) until Friday, Mandela’s body is lying in state for those who would want to view it and all of these activities form part of a 10-day mourning period where South Africans are expected to reminisce on the legacy of their first democratically elected president.

Mandela’s legacy, however, is a contested legacy. There are those who argue that the adulation Mandela is receiving is undeserved. They cite what they consider to be blemishes and contradictions in his past to argue that Mandela was not the person that the world makes him to be. He was not a man of peace but a terrorist and a radical communist, some argue. They refer to Mandela’s forming of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s military wing to give credence to their claims.

“Mandela’s personal failures are an issue between him and God but I believe we are better off as a nation because of this imperfect man.”

Indeed he supported the decision to engage in armed struggle but it is important to also mention the context surrounding that decision. The ANC adopted the option of an armed struggle in the early 60s and yet as the oldest liberation movement in Africa it was formed in 1912. This means for almost 50 years they engaged in peaceful resistance which included marches, protests, strikes, etc. which in many cases were met with merciless violence by the apartheid regime.

A case in point is the Sharpville massacre that saw 69 protesters killed by apartheid police. I found a brilliant article written by a man who calls himself Oom Rugby that helps deal with this issue of Mandela being a terrorist. It is available at Anyway something else that has earned Mandela critics is the fact that some Christians consider him to be someone who has not lived up to the standard of the Bible.

He is twice divorced and supported abortion and homosexuality, amongst other things. Some Christians have been speculating about Mandela’s eternal destiny but a controversial church in America has concluded that Mandela has done enough to merit spending eternity in hell. According to a report in Times Live Westboro Baptist Church has posted a video on their website entitled ‘Thank God for killing Nelson Mandela’ wherein they state their reasons for believing Mandela is now burning in hell.

This now brings me to a question. Should Mandela be judged on Christian standards or should he be measured up against other leaders who have occupied the political sphere? Although he grew up a Methodist, Mandela never pretended to be a committed Christian but was in all fairness, a humanist. He had a humanistic worldview but God still used him as He did King Cyrus and this points to God’s sovereignty and not to the infallibility of Madiba, as he is affectionately known. 

Recently someone argued vehemently with me on Facebook that Mandela was indeed a terrorist who committed many atrocities and killings against both black and white people. When proof was demanded the man got angry and used an expletive while at the time imploring us to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal things to us. Yes, he mentioned the Holy Spirit and used an expletive in the same post and herein lies the problem with Christians.

We often contradict ourselves and act in ways that are below the level of the very people we are busy castigating. Some amongst us are not as conciliatory and selfless as Mandela was and this is why we are obsessing about things he supposedly did 50 years ago instead of what he did in the latter part of his life. Mandela’s personal failures are an issue between him and God but I believe we are better off as a nation because of this imperfect man.

I believe we should be honest in assessing his legacy and mourn him gracefully. We should not idolise him as some are now doing. He was an imperfect man who was used by a perfect God. This is how I understand Tata Nelson Mandela.  


  1. “Mandela’s personal failures are an issue between him and God but I believe we are better off as a nation because of this imperfect man.” I love and so agree with this comment Afrika. I also hear your concern about certain Christians who are so hypocritical.
    The following are comments I made on a Madiba article that was posted on Gateway News earlier this year.
    “Madiba cannot and must not be equated with Jesus Christ. We must worship and serve the triune God only. I’m sure Madiba will be the first to acknowledge that. There might also be those in our country and around the world, who possibly regard Madiba as an idol. However, not everyone who admires Madiba, should be accused of idolatry. The fruit of the Spirit such as love, joy , peace,kindness, compassion,justice , reconcilaition, self-lessness and more, that Madiba has consistantly displayed probably for most of his life, are to be admired and emulated. Madiba’s life-style,possibly more than most christians, reflects in many ways, the character of Christ. He is an exemplary leader, albeit imperfect like all of us. As an outsanding role model( Madiba),I will attempt to be an imitator of the many good virtues that Madiba demonstrated. That does not mean I worship Madiba or equate him with Christ.”

    • The points you raised on your article resonate with me Mark. There is a place for us to admire a leader like Nelson Mandela but that admiration must be tempered with wisdom so that we don’t elevate him to the status of divinity. He was sent by God like the apostles were and it is the one who sent him who deserves unceasing praise.

  2. I could not have said it better. Who are any of us to judge another man. I know one thing…no matter who he was to anyone, one thing is for sure and that is he was a peacemaker after being released. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for at least that.

    • He was indeed a peacemaker Stuart. He was the one who appealed for calm when black people were incensed and calling for revenge after the assassination of Chris Hani in April of 1993. He also managed to convince sceptic political parties like the PAC and AZAPO that the electoral system was the best in achieving your political objectives.
      Those who have taken upon themselves to castigate Mandela and referring to him as a terrorist do not know what the man was to blacks in this country when all seemed dark and hopeless.
      He was the embodiment of the struggle against oppression and tyranny. He was a symbol of hope.
      I am grateful for his sacrifice and I could never be convinced that the man was driven by some narrow and selfish agenda.

  3. Remarkably, the day of Mandela’s burial, a man known for his reconciliation, is to be followed by the Day of Reconciliation, 16 December!

    • Remarkable indeed Pieter. May we live up to the ideal of being completely reconciled. We as Christians should lead in this because we have been given a ministry of reconciliation.

  4. Well said, Afrika. Although it also needs to be said that Westboro Baptist Church is the most disliked ‘church’ in the USA. They are an embarrassment to both the Baptists and the USA.
    These are the guys who protest at the funerals of anybody who has died in a natural disaster, and also at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They claim that these deaths are the result of God’s punishment. They literally believe that God hates us. That would be in stark contrast to the majority of churches in the USA, both conservative and liberal.
    This church exists in the minds of people only because the anti-Christian media need their controversy for their sales.

    • Hi Jaco,
      I also thought there was something sinister in the Sunday Times publishing the story about this church. Yes the church looks for media attention because they released a youtube video denigrating Mandela and claiming that he was burning in hell. They should have been ignored but their ranting is attractive to a media looking for something negative about Christians. They want to project us as loonies like these people.

  5. An excellent article, and well-considered Comments. We who follow Jesus Christ should avoid arrogance in deciding for God who goes to heaven or hell. “God knows those who are His” and “If you call yourself a Christian, depart from iniquity” advises Paul to Timothy. A tribute I read this past week said “He went into prison a terrorist, he came out of prison a peace-maker.” I may add, the apartheid regime was also using terrorist activities against people. Violence begets violence. Mandela showed us another way, the way of forgiveness, which heals the wounds of violence.

    • Thanks Hugh,
      I believe we are sometimes too quick to judge. I wonder how the people who are quick to judge Mandela would have acted if they were in his shoes. I believe the man did the best with the conditions that were before him. To forgive the way he did without the benefit of Christian discipleship speaks volumes about his character.

  6. There aren’t many people with the capacity to forgive like Madiba did. I think that Christians will do well to follow his example. By his willingness to forgive and reconcile, he most probably prevented wholescale bloodshed in South Africa. White people should go on their knees and thank God for that. He was an amazing and a true leader.

    • You are absolutely correct Kobus. There are many things that would have happened to our detriment if people like Mandela were not used by God.
      As a result of their sacrifice and willingness to forgive they are considered to be sell-outs by some black people. Some people think Mandela should have been more radical and aggressive in demanding retribution and redistribution but more reconciliation was to them more important.
      We should indeed learn from his example. He put the country first and so should we.

  7. We should be honouring Mr Mandela by what he “was not”. He was not selfish and he was not greedy. The only selfish thing Nelson Mandela ever did was to promote the interests of others, selfishly. If we each examine our lives against these two standards, we will realize how far short we fall and how much we each need to change in order to build the nation as Mr Mandela did. Previous rule was by military power, why was MK immoral?

    • You are asking a relevant question Mike regarding uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK). Indeed when people evaluate this time in the history of the ANC they only conclude that this was a terrorist organisation. They forget to take the context of the time and circumstances into mind. For close to 50 years the ANC did not have a military wing but tried to pursue its objectives peacefully.
      The unselfish nature of Mandela and some of his calibre is really an example to us and leaders we have today. There is a lot of selfishness today, both in the Church and outside the Church.

  8. Thank you for your well-considered article. While I do not deny or ignore what Mandela did in the past, it is important to remember that if he had not had a change of heart by Codesa 2, this country could have been plunged into even more civil strife than it was already experiencing. However, I believe that God was in control and he in his timing brought down the Berlin Wall and the ensuing end of apartheid, as the Communist threat diminished (Charles Colson’s The Body has some interesting insights). I also believe that the prayers of Christians in SA and around the world during the negotiations and run-up to the 1994 elections were key, including in bringing the IFP back into the elections and enabling them to go ahead peacefully, what many discribed as a miracle. Michael Cassidy of African Enterprise has dealt with what happened behind the scenes, unreported in the media, in his books A Witness Forever and African Harvest. Deo Gloria.

  9. *described (please excuse typo).
    Forgot to say that I have been appalled at the vitriol spewed by supposed Christians – they sound like members of Westboro! I’ve also been somewhat wearied by the degree of adulation of Mandela since he passed away, but I have tried to maintain balance in my perspective.

    • Thanks Eleanor,
      Indeed God was ultimately the one responsible for what took place in SA. He used people because they were available and it is now time for the Church to become available instead of spending time criticizing others.
      Speaking about the over the top adulation that followed Mandela’s passing I was glad that I don’t watch TV because I could not have able to watch the same thing for 10 days. But I think the reason Mandela is celebrated so much is our desire for a heroes. We love heroes such that even in movies we look for one. At a time when there is a dearth of leadership Mandela’s death represented a death of credible and selfless leaders. If Mandela was the father of the nation does his death mean we are now fatherless? Just a thought

  10. Thank you for the article, I struggled with my personal vision/idea of Mandela – but after reading your article and also other articles, watching TV programs about the history of his live, I believe that the Holy Spirit showed me something else and changed my perception. I do believe that God can use any man (with his faults and all) for His divine plan. No one of us is without sin, but God can use you. If one willing man, with God behind him, can make such a big difference in SA and the world – than we should all be willing and together with God we will change our country and the world.

    • Francois you are right and it would great if many others can also read history instead of allowing themselves to be governed by prejudice and baseless theories.
      God can use anyone who is available and Mandela happened to be available when God was looking for someone to reconcile warring factions. At this time we now should make ourselves available to God.

  11. RE: “Should Mandela be judged on Christian standards or should he be measured up against other leaders who have occupied the political sphere? Although he grew up a Methodist, Mandela never pretended to be a committed Christian but was in all fairness, a humanist. He had a humanistic worldview but God still used him as He did King Cyrus and this points to God’s sovereignty and not to the infallibility of Madiba, as he is affectionately known.” ( Columnist, Africa Mhlope, Gateway Christian News, South Africa, )

    The Bible makes it clear that Christians do not have the option of picking and choosing whether to judge Nelson Mandela by the standards of the Bible. In Biblical terms, measuring him “up against other leaders who have occupied the political sphere”, is merely to exalt human wisdom over the mind of God, “the ways of death” (Prov 16:25), perpetuating the sin of idolatry thru “ a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge”(Rom 10: 2-3). As a black American the news of South Africa’s anti-aparthied movement, and Mandela’s courage was a time of rejoicing. I do not intend to take anything away from him, but his abortion policies amount to apartheid against unborn babies. His policies legalizing homosexual practice is similarly apartheid in nature when it comes to religious liberty in SA.
    We American blacks are guilty of the same tragic misstep in our journey as a formerly subjugated people. A third of all abortions in the US are committed on black women, while we are only 12% of the population. In some urban centers public health authorities report that more blacks babies are aborted than brought to term, and since 1972, when abortion was legalized, 15 million blacks have been aborted. ( Google keywords: abortion in black America)
    At the same time, there is not a single major US civil rights organization or black leader speaking out against abortion-violence. Along with this we have seen our leadership in and out of the churches, become major advocates of same-sex marriage, at the expense of the religious freedom in America, exalting pride in social lawlessness. “There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet are not washed from their filthiness.” ( Prov 30: 11-14)
    The point can be made that Nelson Mandela’s heroism in the battle against SA’s tyranny of white apartheid rule, was a modern day version of the Lord’s use of king Cyrus, a Persian, to assist His chosen people, in Nehemiah’s day. ( Is 44:12 –Is 45:1-6). The Lord’s use of king Cyrus was an exercise of His Soveriengty, as you say, and in my view that’s about all that we can say conclusively, in application to Nelson Mandela’s life. Your reference seems to suggest that Nelson Mandela had acceptance with the Lord based on his good works as a freedom fighter.
    Are Christians to believe that the Lord’s relationship with Cyrus stands for the proposition that a humanist, such as you claim Nelson Mandela was, can obtain right relationship with God by virtue of his good works? ( Humanist being defined in my understanding as a person who rejects the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and chooses instead to trust in his own human goodness.) The Scripture does not tell us whether Cyrus ever professed a belief in Jehovah God, only that God in His Soveriegn counsels determined him to be “his anointed” for the sake of Jacob my servant” ( Is 45: 1, 4). We should be very wary of supplying an answer where the Lord has chosen to be silent for His own reasons. This is especially true in this case where the Lord’s primary purpose is to give us an example of His Inscrutability as the Soveriegn God of the universe.
    As monstrously evil as racial – apartheid was, in God’s eyes, the Bible gives us no reason to conclude that victims and perpetrators are treated differently in terms of the Lord’s provision for mankind’s salvation. The Lord’s holy eyes does not wink at sin, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 6:23 & 1John 1:9)
    Did Mandela bow the knee at the Name, and did his tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? That is the question, today, yesterday and forevermore. ( Phil 2:10-11)

    • Hi Vashti,
      I think you missing the point I am making. Nowhere in my article did I make a determination regarding whether or not Mandela was accepted by God. I did not reach this conclusion and neither can anyone reach the conclusion that he was NOT accepted by the Almighty.
      We do not know enough to make a determination regarding Mandela eternal destiny and yet many believers, and surprisingly enough, many outside of South Africa, have concluded that Mandela is in hell.
      As a South African I know that Mandela approved abortion, homosexuality and abominable laws and I know the impact these laws have in our country but I do not know if Mandela made things right with God, at the end. Unless we are suggesting that there sins that cannot be forgiven.
      Now on the question, why did Mandela approve these laws? He did so in keeping with the humanistic system of politics he was part and raised in. This is why I say he must be judged based on this system and not on ours – because he never claimed to be committed follower of Christ. He was not governed by a Biblical worldview. Strangely enough even those of us who claim to be followers of Christ betray the principles He stood for.
      Now about judging Mandela, I am referring about how we access his legacy and not on God’s judgement. I know that God’s judgement cannot be made to fit into Mandela’s circumstances. God’s judgement is impartial (Acts 10:34). If Mandela did the things (e.g. forgiveness, reconciliation, etc.) he did without being a church goer, how much more should we.

      • Dec 23, 2013
        ( Gatewaychristianews.comSouthAfrica)
        Hi Afrika
        I believe we should keep in mind that among the Lord’s primary purpose in giving the Bible to the Church is positive & affirmative: to point lost mankind to the cross of Jesus, not the other way around. ( Matt 28:19-20) And so I agree with you that no one can say that Mandela is not with the Almighty.
        In reading that Mandela grew up in the Methodist church, my first thought was that its possible that he made an effectual confession of faith in the Lord during that time, and if so we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Rom 8: 34-39) I’m witnessing from my experience as a backslider for most of my adult life. Like Mandela I was raised a Christian, accepted Christ as a youngster, but spent most of my adult life backslidden, in fact supported abortion rights in those days. Therefore, having experienced the blessing of the prodigal’s repentance from the far country, I’m the last person to begrudge Mandela this blessing too. ( Luke 15: 11-31)
        Abortion and homosexuality are not unforgiveable sins, and if Mandela was a humanist as you say, this sin would also be subject to the Lord’s forgiveness. The question is confession and repentance, and only the Lord knows what Mandela did in his heart. ( 1John 1:9)
        When you say concerning Mandela:
        “ Now about judging Mandela, I am referring about how we access his legacy and not on God’s judgment. I know that God’s judgment cannot be made to fit into Mandela’s circumstances. God judgement is impartial ( Acts 10:34). If Mandela did the things (e.g. forgiveness, reconciliation, etc) he did without being a church goer, how much more should we.”
        I don’t wish to diminish Nelson Mandela’s contribution. I’m applauding every instance we can find in Scripture where his work aligns with the cause of Christ. In all such instances though, it is God, the person of Jesus Christ who is the Benefactor and the Authority. (Is 33: 22, Eph 3:21) To God be the glory the Church has song through the ages, “for how should my name be polluted? And I will not give my glory unto another. (Is 49:11)” In this light, we are obligated to remember that the values of forgiveness and reconciliation that Mandela expressed are values that the Lord suffered and died to make possible for mankind, as a free gift of grace. ( John 3:16, Phil 1: 29-30 ) And along these same lines, let’s not forget that we have brothers and sisters dying daily in the global persecuted church for the sake of keeping the Lord’s Name Holy. While this may not seem immediately relevant, I believe that its entirely relevant in appreciating the enormity of what’s at stake when we Christians in liberalized nations accommodate ourselves to the growing pressures of secularization. The Lord calls us in the letter to the Hebrews to: “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.” ( Heb 13: 3 and see 2 Tim 3: 12, Phil 1:29-30)
        Neither Christian or non-Christian has the option in life or in death to limit the Lord’s jurisdiction over the meaning of our lives and actions Christians are mandated to look to the Lord as our example, ( Eph 5:1-2), no matter how appealing and worthy any human’s record may be. ( Ps 39: 5-6 & Is 64:6) It does not matter whether the person is a Christian doing his work in the name of Christ. Be it the likes of Rev. Billy Graham, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Teresa, we must never lose sight of the fact that, “None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him. For the redemption of their soul is precious….”( Psalm 49: 7-8) As the Psalmist makes clear, the Lord’s business with humanity is to save us from our sin, and after its all said and done, mankind’s great accomplishments known as history, are being carried out subject to the perspective of Redemptive History. “ Be thou not ashamed of the testimony of our Lord…who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began. ( 2Tim 1: 8-9)”
        I would think that Mandela himself would not desire that his record be glossed over in those areas where his actions does not measure up to the benevolence with which we in our human perspective prefer to view him. His record like every other great leader is now subject to the test of time.
        A bifurcated interpretation of Mandela, requires the Church to celebrate Mandela’s opposition to apartheid and racial equality, while pretending the Lord has had nothing to say concerning the sanctity of unborn human life, and the sanctity of the marriage. ( Heb 13:4) bed. This is a recipe for God-ordained darkness in the church: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness.” ( Matt 6: 22-23; Jas 1: 6-8; Col 1:8)
        Your sister in Christ,
        Vashti Varnado

  12. We pay tribute to a man who laid his life down for his kinsmen; Loved everyone and paved the way for that commandment to be fulfilled; Squashed fear and spear-headed freedom and reconciliation. You see, we as Christians, preach forgiveness from a pulpit-This wonderful man lived it out in true Chrst-like fashion. Let us not distort that truth. Salvation is in the Hands of our Creator and Author…So we should refrain from determining whether a man goes to hell or heaven by our understanding.

    • 12/19/13
      Thank you for bringing the ministry of John the Baptist to our attention as a scriptural frame of reference for our thinking when it comes to Nelson Mandela’s legacy. ( SeeJohn 3:27,30, &31) And I would add that John the Baptist’s testimony concerning his discipleship to Christ is the measure for all Christians.) Concerning his ministry as the forerunner of Christ, John confessed that: “ A man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven”, and goes on to say that at all times with the servant of Christ, that “He must increase, but I must decrease .” ( John 3: 27, 30)
      The Lord has spoken from the beginning of His Word concerning both the sanctity of human life, ( Gen 1:27 & Gen 9:6) and the intrinsically sacred plane upon which human sexuality exists: “in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” If we seek to minimize the Bible’s input where Mandela’s legacy in these areas clearly contravenes the authority of God, while at the same time advancing the figure of Jesus Christ in championing his struggle against racial-aparthied, we do a grave distortion to Scripture, and Mandela’s memory. I would like to point out that the issue of whether Mandela was a Christian, or a humanist was brought up originally by Mr. Mhlope’s article that we’re responding to. While I did not bring it up, I believe that for Christians this inquiry is entirely appropriate and imperative. And I seek a spirit of humility and love in approaching this discussion. ( Eph 2:8-9, & 1 Cor 13: 2)
      Only the Lord knows the status of a person’s heart when it comes to salvation, as you point out. This is not an issue that’s amenable to our own human understanding and sympathies. As Paul wrote at 2 Timothy 1:13, we are obligated to “hold fast the form of sound words which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is Christ Jesus” (And see 2 Tim 2: 16-19).
      In Christ,

    • Thanks Kurt,
      We should indeed avoid distortions that seek to fit into our narrow thinking. Mandela did not preach forgiveness but he lived it. This is an example for Christians. Whether or not he was saved is for God to determine.