An Intriguing Story About Prayer, the Power of Christian Leadership, and Nelson Mandela

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I stood in the cell where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen of his twenty-seven imprisoned years.  While it now appeared unremarkable, it still seemed somewhat hallowed.  As we walked about Robben Island, just off the South African coast near Cape Town, I tried to imagine Mandela’s feelings and to hear his many conversations with colleagues of the African National Congress (ANC). There must have been a sense of futility mingled with hope for their cause.

The transition from white minority power over both the black and colored majority is a story like none other.   A political system called apartheid had evolved through the early years of the twentieth century and came to full bloom in the 1960s.  As its laws became more repressive and absurd, Mandela led the underground resistance and was eventually convicted by the white courts, as were many of his ANC associates.  As the resistance grew to rebellion, the government finally realized that the laws needed changing and they eventually consulted Mandela while in prison.   They promised his soon release and general elections to be held in 1994.

In 1990 the world watched and wondered as Mandela left prison and boarded a ferry to cross to Cape Town. His peaceful presence, his measured words, his respect for his captors and his carefully considered convictions showed that he was a leader of a different stripe.  His mature wisdom and gracious manner suggested how he might someday govern.

This is the story that we all saw.  But behind it was another story less reported in the major media.   After so many decades of harsh rule under apartheid, the oppressed majority could have easily pursued retribution.  And yet, their antagonisms were focused primarily on their own people, for the black community was divided.  Mandela led the ANC while Buthelezi, chief of the large Zulu tribe in South Africa, led the Independence Freedom Party (IFP).  The two sides were at each other’s throats, with killings on a regular basis.

South Africa was ruled by people who were steeped in the doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church mixed with their need to survive as a majority.   This had certain similarities to the position of early settlers in the United States who perpetuated the practice of slavery while trying to defending it biblically.   But there were other spiritual influences in South Africa, one of the most dominant being the legacy of Andrew Murray, a minister who had died in 1917 but had left a rich heritage of Christian thinking in his more than 240 books.   He is still read and appreciated around the world for his writings on prayer.

As the Christian leaders in South Africa saw the conflict that was likely to happen, they mobilized in an effort of prayer for a peaceful resolution in a time of momentous change.   At the same time, the leaders of the ANC and the IFP knew that the violence had to stop and they agreed to invite Henry Kissinger from the United States and Lord Carrington from Britain to assist in mediation. Adding to the foment was Buthelezi’s threat to forbid Zulus to vote in the coming election.  This meant that when Mandela was elected – a forgone conclusion – Buthelezi could then declare that the election was illegitimate since a major tribe wasn’t part of the vote.  This would, in effect, make Mandela a president without a mandate, an accusation which could rally the troops to further conflict, at the very time the white laws of apartheid were crumbling.  What was seen as a wonderful transition was turning into a nightmare.

It was Michael Cassidy, a South African leader of African Enterprise, who saw the futility of high level mediation without also relying on God’s intervention.  He reached out to Washington Okumu, a Christian professor from Kenya who was often called “the gentle giant” to join in the negotiations.

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SOURCE: Brian C. Stiller
World Evangelical Alliance

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