FNB Acacia

Leadership and spirituality: The story of Nelson Mandela

SHARE   |   Wednesday, 10 October 2018   |   By Ricardo Kanono
Madiba Madiba

This weekend I return to the subject of leadership and examine a crucial, yet often overlooked aspect-spirituality.  All those of us who have played some leadership role know how challenging this responsibility is. Now imagine those who are fully engaged in this function, be it cabinet ministers, presidents, business leaders or leaders of NGOs.  Stress, worry, fear, depression and doubt are familiar nouns in this lane. And this is where spirituality comes in. However, sadly this is something you are very unlikely to learn at school. Most life skills are not taught at school. It is like the subjects of love, marriage and death. At one stage in life we deal with these issues but no school prepares you for these. In my case I was lucky to learn about spirituality and leadership from the WKK Kellogg Leadership School to which I am eternally grateful. Our lecturer Prof. Lovemore Mbigi was very emphatic on this. Although I did not agree with his chosen religion I appreciated the rationale of his teaching and I am well -grounded on the interface between faith and leadership.

As for Nelson Mandela, I have always been intrigued by his extraordinary kindness-sheer magnanimity. I have always wondered where he got that kind of heart. To be honest, I found him to be far kinder than even the most devout of Christians that I have met all my life. I read his books, No Easy Walk to Freedom and Long Walk to Freedom but I did not fully grasp this. However recently when I was listening to one of the faith channels on Dstv, I heard one pastor say that Mandela accepted Christ whilst he was in prison after listening to the famous American televangelist Billy Graham. I wished he could say more but he didn’t. And just last week whilst on transit to West Africa I passed by my addiction spot, Exclusive Books at OR Tambo, and found a relatively new book by Dennis Cruywagen (2016), entitled ‘The Spiritual Mandela’. I bought it at once and did not hesitate to feast on it.


I shall return to the book shortly. It got me really thinking and started doing more research on the subject. I discovered that as a fierce critic of apartheid Pastor Graham would not come to preach in South Africa until and unless all races were given access to his crusade. Twenty years after receiving the invitation, he came to address two massive crusades in Durban and Johannesburg on his terms in 1973! He castigated apartheid as a sin and prophesied that it would die. Christ was for all and knew no race or colour, he proclaimed. The front page of the March 18, 1973 issue of The Sunday Tribune declared in a large, bold font: “Billy Graham: Apartheid Doomed’. Another interesting piece of information from my research was that actually Mandela and Graham, who were age mates, both born in 1918, kept in touch by mail during Mandela’s long prison years. I have no doubt that those letters were dripping with inspirational scriptures that kept Mandela and fellow prisoners motivated and hopeful. I would like to take this issue up with my good friend Mike Dingake who spent 18 years on Robben Island with Mandela. Hopefully he will tell me more!

Now returning to the book, Cruywagen traces Mandela’s spiritual journey to his homestead where his mother Nonqaphi Nosekeni introduced him to the Lord in the Methodist Church. That was Mandela’s church to his last day on earth. When he went to Mveso to stay with his relative Thembu King Jongintaba following his father’s death he was once more surrounded by Methodists who routinely took him to church. This was a continuation of the journey from his childhood village of Qunu, where he had attended primary school. Beginning in 1819 with the arrival of British settlers, the entire Eastern Cape had become an enclave of Methodists missionaries as they set up churches all over the territory. Although not a Christian himself, Chief Gadla had allowed both his wife and son, Nelson  (born Rolihahla) to follow the Methodist way. He even supported his baptism, with the encouragement of his friends, the Mbekela brothers, George and Ben, who were dedicated and educated Methodists. At Clarkebury High School where Mandela went to secondary school once more he was in a Methodist place. King Jongintaba taught both Mandela and future King Sabata Dalindyebo about honour and respect for the family name. Nelson was also counselled about his future role in the Thembu royal house and placed under the guidance of the Reverend Cecil Harris, Clarkesbury Headmaster. At that point the young man had almost not interaction with white people. Both at home and school Mandela attended bible study and even led it later.


At 19, when he went to Wesleyan College at Fort Beaufort, Mandela found himself at another Methodist sanctuary. He took classes in liberal arts and Christian education.  His education at Fort Hare steeped him further in the Christian faith, in a school run by Methodists, Anglicans and Presbyterians. It was here that he joined the Student Christian Association and taught bible classes in the villages surrounding the university. Later in his life, Mandela was to proclaim that, ‘It was the missionaries that piloted black education…So Christianity is really in our blood’. He was mentored at Fort Hare by his nephew Kaizer Matanzima who even organised him to stay at Wesley House, the prestiguius two-storey residence. Another Christian friend he met here was Oliver Tambo, a devout Anglican and also a member of the Student Christian Association. He also stayed on campus at Beda Hall, an Anglican residence. Both of them were Sunday school teachers. Actually Tambo almost became an Anglican minister. Student activism got the better of him as it did with Mandela.  Both became involved in the SRC and later the ANC. The rest is history.

So by the time Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island he was a solid Christian.  His jailors had only managed to imprison the body but they failed to contain the spirit. It kept praying. It kept dreaming. It kept seeing beyond the walls of the prison walls. It is for this reason that like Apostle Paul who encouraged those who were free whilst he was in chains, Mandela was also a motivator to those who were free. He gave counsel to prison guards with their own legal issues. It is also recorded in Cruywagen’s book that Mandela encouraged other prisoners to interact with church ministers. He himself forged friendship with many ministers over the years who encouraged him in the word and gave him communion behind the prison walls. These included Reverend Harry Wiggett who ministered to him at Pollsmoor Prison and Father Alan Hughes who visited him on Robben Island. These are men who even defended him in the media when he was portrayed as a dangerous communist who must rot in jail. Sometimes their access to prison was suspended for speaking out for Mandela. A story is told of how Mandela almost got a warder into trouble by asking him to take off his cap and participate in the communion whilst at Pollsmoor.


As president, Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation and Commission was just a continuation of his Christian journey. He strongly believed in Christian values. It was a matter of conviction for him. Contrast this with his counterpart in Zimbabwe who similarly received Christian education. It did not mean much for Robert Mugabe whose security forces murdered hundreds of citizens.  Mandela’s life is thus a clear example of what a human spirit inspired by the spirit of God can do. Yes, religion can be the opium of the people. But a Christ centred leadership is a guaranteed success; good for the leader and good for the people. Mandela ended his journey on earth very well.

Related news