Mandela and His Surprising Beliefs

Mandela and His Surprising Beliefs

Richard Hollerman

Probably most of us have been amazed at the amount of coverage the news reporters have given to Nelson Mandela and his recent death. The Presidents of leading countries around the world have attended his funeral and much attention has been given to Mandela’s role in ending South African apartheid.

We must also remember Mandela’s long imprisonment and subsequent release, then his period of presidency over South Africa.  While he was a controversial political figure, most people look with favor and even admiration of him.  They are positively inclined toward his principles and the result of his “fair” governing, along with the resulting equality of the different ethnic groups in Africa’s wealthiest nation.

Most people find that Africa (at least south of the Sahara) has become a leading “Christian” continent in the world. Whereas Christendom has stagnated in Europe, Africa continues to be hospitable to different forms of “Christian” denominations. This includes South Africa. But was Nelson Mandela a Christian or, at least, a professing Christian?  One report has this to say:

Although it is almost universally agreed that he was a Christian, his exact denominational allegiances rea source of discussion. While some have suggested that he was a Jehovah’s Witness, as his first wife, his sister, and many relatives around him identified as such, most believe he was a Methodist. He attended a Methodist church school growing up, and was baptised in a small Methodist stone church in the Eastern Cape village of Qunu.

In his autobiography, “The Long Walk to Freedom” he talked of his early experiences with Christianity, praising its engagements with the society around him: “The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church.”

Consequently, while attending the University of Fort Hare, an elite black university in Alice, Eastern Cape, Mandela became a member of the Students Christian Association and taught Bible classes on Sundays in nearby villages.

Among other factors, it was Mandela’s Christianity that steered him away from Communism and the class struggle that was spreading into South Africa in the 1940s. Despite befriending Gaur Redebe and Nat Bregman, prominent Xhosa and Jewish South African communists, he could not reconcile communism’s atheistic attitudes with his Christian faith. Also, he felt that the idea of class struggle was misleading, and that South Africa’s problems were primarily racial in origin. Although he was impressed that the local communist party saw Europeans, Africans, Indians, and those of mixed heritage all mixing equally, he clearly believed there was another way to go.

( nelson-mandela-and-his-faith-7638; nelson-mandela-s-beliefs)

This would seem to indicate that Mandela was a Methodist or a member of some other “Christian” sect.  We doubt that his (and his family’s) involvement in the “Jehovah’s Witness” cult was strong for his life as an adult would seem to deny this. Therefore, this would say that this elder statesman (he died at age 95) did profess Christianity of some kind. How his earlier involvement in the sport of boxing fits into this mix, we don’t know.

And how his revolutionary stance on change fits into it, we don’t know either. Another report says:

Mandela is a Christian, though which type specifically is up for debate.1 There is reason to believe he leans toward Jehovah’s Witness given the fact that his first wife, sister, and a few of his other relatives claim that faith. Then again, he did attend a Methodist Church school growing up, like his mother.2 But unless it’s about religious equality, faith isn’t something Mandela has spoken much about.

Mandela recognized that religion is a great divider of peoples, and he envisioned a world where acceptance and tolerance outweighed the alternatives. He once said:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.3

One gets the sense that Mandela’s concerns are more secular, worldly. Having spent a total of 27 years in prison, where many a prisoner turns to religion to get them through, Mandela got a law degree instead.4 That is not to say, however, that he does not exude spirituality. Mandela often spoke of the strength of the human soul, saying, for example:

I thank whatever gods may be for my uncomfortable soul, I am the master of my faith. I am the captain of my soul.5 ( nelson-mandela/)

This shows his unorthodox beliefs. If, in fact, he said the above, we can see his neglect of true Christian faith.

A new article came out today (December 16, 2013) that clouds this picture somewhat and it brings perplexity into any assessment of Mandela’s religion.  In an article entitled, “Traditional tribal rituals observed during Nelson Mandela’s funeral” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dec. 16, 2013), we read of Mandela’s tribal loyalty to various pagan customs. 

The article spoke of tribal rituals of the Xhosa tribe—which is the tribe of Mandela’s ancestors. This relates to burial customs. The article refers to the funeral: “The ceremony was an eclectic mix of traditional rituals, Christian elements and the military honors of a state funeral.”  The article continues: “The Xhosa recognize the presence of ancestral spirits and call on them for guidance. Veneration for the world of the ancestors, or Umkhapho in Xhosa, plays an important role in their culture.”

In the burial custom, an elder of the family is required “to stay with Mandela’s body and explain to his spirit what is happening. ‘When the body lies there, the spirit is still alive,’ said the Rev. Wesley Mabuza, chairman of South Africa’s Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the right of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities.”  So the spirit continues with the body? We must remember that Scripture says: “The dust will return to the earth is it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

Nokuza Mndende says that “The body must be informed of whatever is happening before the funeral.” The body is to be wrapped in a lion skin and maybe a national flag. There must also be an ox slaughtered and eaten outside the family house. A year later, another ox would be killed and eaten. Then a year later (two years from the death), there is a happy ceremony “to bring back the deceased into the family so that the person will henceforth be looking over the family and its children as a well-meaning ancestor, a ritual called Ukubuyisa, according to Mndende.”

Of course, the discerning reader will easily see the pagan or heathen elements of these beliefs. The Bible says that there is judgment after death (Hebrews 9:27). The person immediately goes either to a place of torment or a place of blessedness (Luke 16:19-31), to await the final judgment and entrance into either the lake of fire or the New Jerusalem in a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 20:11-15; 21:1-8).

This would say that these contrary beliefs are failing to see the truth of Scripture, that which was taught by the Lord Jesus Christ and His chosen apostles.  The idea of a person staying around a body at death is contrary to the sound teaching of the Bible and the idea that the person returns at a later time to the place of his birth in order to counsel his or her descendants and protect them, is also unscriptural and false.  This whole idea is somewhat similar to the false idea of ghosts.  We might also say that other beliefs about death and the afterlife (such as the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, believed by some one billion people on earth!) are likewise false. Only what is revealed in God’s written Word is to be trusted.

Whatever Nelson Mandela believed and whatever his family believes, we must always go to the Scriptures for our system of belief. This situation with Mandela is a warning for us in various ways: (1) We may not fully know what someone believes during his life but it may be revealed in his death (cf. 1 Timothy 5:24-25). (2) We must always be aware of the many false teachings circulating in the religious world and even with our own family. We won’t be judged by family traditions, tribal customs, or church doctrines. The Word of God is what will judge us (John 12:48). (3) Only the Word of God can provide a true, complete, and accurate view of life, death, and our eternal destiny. “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn” (Isaiah 8:20).

Let’s not base our beliefs on our eternal future on Mandela’s beliefs or anyone else’s beliefs. Rather, let’s allow God to inform us of what is true and what is false. There can be no other way!





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