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Mandela's message was one of peace: faith connections are an untold, pivotal part of his life and work appreciation.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison to emerge an international icon--and become the first black president of a democratically elected government in South Africa. He died at his home in Johannesburg Dec. 5 at age 95.

The role played by the clergy in the creation of a "new" South Africa--and Mandela's innate faith in God--remains an untold, yet pivotal, chapter in his story. In his declining years, presidents and kings came to pay homage. In life, it was to churchmen he turned for advice.

When Mandela was released from prison Feb. 11. 1990. the white minority government was well aware that the only way forward would be a negotiated dispensation that would ensure equal rights for all.

For South Africans, fueled by generations of racial division and mistrust, the task ahead was formidable. But when Mandela stood outside Cape Town City Hall to address the thousands who had come to see him on the day of his release. his message was not one of anger or revenge, but of reconciliation and peace.

"Today the majority of South Africans, black and white, recognize that apartheid has no future. It has to be ended by our own decisive mass action in order to build peace and security" he told the jubilant crowds.

But almost from the start, violence flared up between the Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) and the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party with suspicions of a third force sponsored by the white minority government at work.

In one of the worst cases, on the night of Jan. 12, 1991, 39 people were killed in Sebokeng outside Johannesburg. There was trouble in 27 townships around South Africa in the next few years, leaving hundreds dead.

But it was the assassination of Chris Hani, leader of the South African Communist Party by white right-wingers in 1993 that brought the country to the brink of civil war. Mandela saved the situation.

In a televised interview, he said he was reaching out to every South African, black and white, from the very depths of his being. "Our grief is tearing us apart. ... What has happened is a national tragedy that has touched millions across the political and color divide," he told the nation.

Then, just as progress was being made, another problem arose, and the talks stalled again. This time, the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, aimed at dealing with apartheid-era human rights violations, was the stumbling block.

The National Party government wanted the same blanket amnesty given the ANC--with a guarantee of a general amnesty written into the interim constitution. Neither then-President EW. de Klerk nor Mandela were ready to back down.

The Franciscan archbishop of ban, Wilfrid Napier, later to be cardinal, remembers there was a genuine fear that violence would erupt once again.

"We were afraid that if the holdup was not sorted out quickly, the fighting and the killing would start all over," Napier recalled. "So we approached de Klerk and Mandela and told them we knew they were having difficulty. Could we meet privately?"

The men agreed. After an afternoon with the churchmen, consensus was reached. De Klerk and Mandela decided to appear on television within 24 hours to tell the country how the problem would be solved. The nation could breathe again.

Although known to keep his religious views private, Mandela was ever mindful of the role clergy could play in his vision for a nonracial South Africa. It was through church mission schools, he said, that he and his generation were educated.

Mandela was 7 years old when his mother enrolled him at the Clarke-bury Missionary School in South Africa's Eastern Cape province. He continued his education at the Healdtown Methodist College. a boarding school started by missionaries in 1845. He completed his Bachelor of Arts studies through the University of South Africa, and then enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand to study law. His involvement with the ANC, however, interrupted his university life.

Later, he and his friend Oliver Tambo opened the first black legal practice in South Africa. However, he continued to be involved in the liberation struggle and he was arrested in 1962. Two years later, he was found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment.

His friendship with Archbishop Stephen Naidoo of Cape Town is reflected in a letter he wrote from prison in November 1984. The contents were published for the first time in The Southern Cross. South Africa's Catholic weekly, in 2009 to mark Mandela's 90th birthday. Handwritten, it was headed with Mandela's prison number: D220/82. In it. he told the archbishop that he had been uplifted by the pastoral care provided by clergy on Robben Island, where he spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment.

Naidoo, who under apartheid laws was classified an Indian. became friends with Mandela before his appointment to head the Cape Town archdiocese. As auxiliary bishop of Cape Town, Naidoo regularly visited Robben Island.

In Mandela's letter to Naidoo. he said news that his friend had been appointed archbishop "pleased me beyond words."

"The elevation of black personalities to positions of authority in the church is a development which has far wider significance than many people may realize," Mandela wrote. "For one thing, it will remove a sensitive problem which has repeatedly rocked South African churches, kept each congregation divided against itself, and generated strong, and even violent, passions not compatible with the teachings of the scriptures."

When Mandela was released from prison, one of his first trips abroad was to Rome, where he met Pope John Paul II in 1990. The two met again in 1995, when the pope visited South Africa.

After Mandela became president following South Africa's first nonracial elections in 1994, he maintained close contact with the clergy holding regular quarterly meetings with them.

"He had a mind as clear as bell," Napier said. "It was obvious that his Christian formation was the source of his inspiration."

At his presidential inauguration in 1994, when dignitaries from around the world gathered to witness him take the oath of office, he warned South Africans that reconciliation required working together to defend democracy and the humanity proclaimed by the new constitution.

"The further construction of that house of peace needs my hand. It needs your hand," he said.

Reconciliation requires "that we join hands ... to eradicate the poverty spawned by a system that thrived on the deprivation of the majority," he continued. "Reconciliation requires that we end malnutrition, homelessness and ignorance ... that we put shoulders to the wheel to end crime and corruption."

Aware that many whites, uncertain of their future under a black government, were planning to emigrate, Mandela called on them to stay and help rebuild a democratic South Africa.

There were many sides to Mandela that South Africans of all races came to love. One story told of a group of South African churchmen who arranged to meet Mandela for breakfast soon after his release. They chatted briefly before sitting down to their meal, but had no sooner lifted knife and fork when their guest stopped them.

"Gentlemen," Mandela said, "surely we should say grace before we start eating?"

It was a gentle rebuke that had people chuckling at the embarrassed clergymen--but was the story true?

"Indeed it was." Napier said. "Mandela was a stickler for praying before meals."

At a special United Nations gathering to mark Mandela's 95th birthday in July 2013. former U.S. President Bill Clinton recounted a story about the elder statesman ending his 27 years in jail "a greater man than he went in."

Clinton said he'd asked Mandela why he had invited his jailer to his inauguration and brought white opposition parties into his government.

"Tell me the truth: When you were walking down that road, didn't you hate them?" Clinton asked Mandela.

"He said briefly: 'I did. I am old enough to tell the truth.' He said, 'I felt hatred and fear but I said to myself, if you hate them when you get in that car you will still be their prisoner. I wanted to be free and so I let it go.'"

Caption: --[c]Rick Reinhard

Caption: Nelson Mandela meets with religious leaders June 21, 1990, at Riverside Church in New York City.


See an extended version of this story online at, along with a copy of the 1984 letter written by Nelson Mandela to Archbishop Stephen Naidoo.

[Winnie Graham is a retired assistant editor of The Star newspaper in Johannesburg.]
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Title Annotation:Nelson Mandela
Author:Graham, Winnie
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Dec 20, 2013
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