Faith and Religion in the Life of Nelson Mandela
The Spiritual Mandela presents us the great South
African in an unusual perspective, one rarely
touched by Mandela himself: the importance of
Christian influence in his education. Bishop Desmond
Tutu said once that Mandela was very reserved concerning
his spiritual life, but this book shows you a narrative
filled with facts that contributed to the intellectual and
spiritual development of this outstanding figure of modern
Unlike the commitment towards freedom that marked every moment of his life, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was very reserved in the public display of his religions convictions. Nonetheless, some years prior to his death in 2013, Mandela determined that his funeral would observe the traditional Methodist rituals, in a ceremony directed by the Methodist Bishop Don Dabula, his friend and confidant.
Despite growing in a family faithful to the tribal tradition, his development blends with Christian values. Under his father’s guidance, he was baptized in the Methodist church, later being educated by British missionaries, even going on to credit Methodist institutions as ideal to mold the kind of independent minds that led the anti-apartheid fight.
After his father’s passing, little Rolihlahla was handed to the tribal chief, Jongintaba, who lived in the capital of the Thembuland province, who had offered to be his education’s guardian, something that Gadla, Mandela’s father, could not refuse. This was a great opportunity of assuring a promising future toward young Mandela, studying and growing in a Christian environment while maintaining an education within Thembu traditions, supervised by one of the tribe’s greatest leaders.
Now living in the palace, the Great Place, Mandela had a tutor who assumed his responsibility in full, establishing a plan that would assure the attaining of his maximum potential, which would lead to the rank of royal advisor, and which would keep him from spending his life in South African gold mines. There was no better place for this, nor was there someone more capable than Jongintaba, who knew much of the two pillars upon which Mandela’s education was founded – culture and religion. His function demanded exceptional qualities, incorporating the traditional values of the Thembu while retaining, as a Methodist, the principles of Christian faith.
The family was faithful to the ancestral custom, since the presence of missionary William Shaw at the beginning of the 19th century, to be present at the Sunday service, which led Mandela to a new habit and a new authority: the power of Christianity as transmitted by Rev. Matyolo, leader of the local Methodist congregation.
In 1934, at the age of sixteen, Rolihlahla took part on the traditional Xhosa ritual of circumcision, which represented the boys’ transition into adulthood, something fundamental to one who is to be respected amongst the Thembu. Without going through this ceremony, no Xhosa man may inherit from his parents, marry or perform tribal rites. Mandela was now Dalibunga, an epithet given to a traditional governor in the region of Transkei.
When Mandela attended high school, the regent trusted his education to Rev. Harris from the Clarkebury Methodist Institute, whom they called “White Thembu.” Curiously, the Clarkebury mission post was built in lands given out to William Shaw by Mandela’s great-grandfather, King Ngubengcuka. Rev. Richard
Hadley oversaw its foundation in 1825, and it was baptized in honor of the British theologian Dr. Adam Clarke.
“… I have no problem with religious belief. My problem is that all too often people fail to act on what they claim to believe.”
Regent Jongintaba, an alumnus of Clarkebury himself, was determined in providing young Mandela with favorable conditions to his preparation for the important role he would play in Thembu society. The mix between his Christian education and his traditional one would be crucial to guide the future royal advisor.
After three years at Clarkebury, Mandela was transferred to another prestigious Methodist institution, the Wesleyan College of Healdtown, with over four thousand students from both sexes, where the British, Christian education system of liberal arts prevailed.
Despite being considered an institute of the South African elite that formed “Anglicized” Africans, it gave Mandela the chance to experience the non-violent opposition to the reigning white supremacy, thus establishing his future understanding of the apartheid regime.
In 1939, then at age 21, Nelson Mandela enrolled in a college known for its high Christian standards, being connected to the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations – the University of Fort Hare. There he was an active member of the Christian student association, teaching Bible classes in the outskirts of town. To have an idea of the education provided there and the kind of minds present there, a number of other freedom activists make up the university’s list of alumni, including Oliver Tambo, Robert Mugabe, Seretse Khama, Dennis Brutus, Govan Mheki and Robert Sobukwe.
At the end of his days, Mandela expressed his gratitude toward the European missionaries. “Our generation was produced by Christian schools, by missionary schools… when the government took no interest whatsoever in our education. It was the missionary that piloted black education… so Christianity really is in our blood.”
Two remarkable figures of the anti-apartheid fight, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo became great friends at that school, which shows how Christian schools and colleges contributed to the development of free, revolutionary thinking, in a period of South-African history in which many black Africans fought to obtain a decent education.
Nevertheless, his life would change in a radical and abrupt way, as the regent determined, in a declining stage of his life, that Mandela was to marry a woman for which he felt nothing. A man of a strong and developed mentality, he chose not to submit to his tutor’s command, leaving college and fleeing to Johannesburg, thus forfeiting the future destined to him, yet preserving his independence.
Although he lived protect with the regent’s family and obtained an exemplar academic education, he never stopped considering the importance his mother had in his life, and felt deeply grateful for the role she had in the formation of his religious identity.
Dennis Cruywagen – IMAGINE BOOKS-WATERTOWN