I met Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela exactly fifty years ago in his jail cell on Robben Island. I was a newly ordained part-time chaplain to the prison there. He, together with his fellow Rivonia trialists, had been flown secretly to the island after being sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour for the rest of their natural lives.
The guards were very edgy about their new prisoners, determined to show these “terrorists” how tough they were. Sunday, when I visited, was their one day off, but it was spent in total lock-down. I was not allowed to gather them for a normal service of worship, but had to walk up and down the hallway between the cells, trying to make eye contact with each occupant as I passed. Apart from Ahmed Kathrada, a Muslim, the rest had all experienced mission-school education and were familiar with Christian worship. Preaching was difficult, but I tried to leave each one with a word of encouragement. Singing, on the other hand, was not bound by iron bars, and the great hymns of the church, which were well-known to them, echoed powerfully through the hallways, their melodies often taken up by prisoners in other blocks.
My memories of Mandela were of a strong, vital character in the prime of his manhood, all strength and contained energy. He had a ready smile and clearly appreciated the dilemma of a young minister trying, under the cold eyes of the guards, to bring a moment of humanity into this desolate place. Only once, on a very cold day, was I able to persuade a guard to let the group out into the prison yard where we gathered in a sunny spot. That day I changed my text to, “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed,” letting them choose how to spell “Son/sun.” They enjoyed the joke. The guards did not.
Given these impossible limitations, I have sometimes felt embarrassed being introduced as ”Mandela’s prison chaplain.” Yet looking back I realize that being confined to sharing nothing other than the healing, strengthening words of Scripture and the songs of the faith, required one to put one’s trust entirely in the power of the Gospel—nothing else. More than one of the Rivonia group, including Madiba, have told me since how that ministry and those who followed me (my security clearance was abruptly withdrawn after a few months) meant to them. Kathrada, now the only Rivonia trialist still living—and the Muslim in the group—has also shared how, in those early horror days on Robben Island, that brief moment of humanity helped them all.
It was 20 years later when I next heard from Madiba. Still in prison, he used one of his precious letter-writing privileges (initially one per month and later relaxed to a half dozen) to congratulate me on being elected to lead the Methodist Church in Southern Africa, and to express his appreciation for the care the church had shown to him through its chaplains and to Winnie, his spouse, in her banishment and suffering at the hands of the “system.” It was in that letter that he referred to his first encounter with the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg in the 1940s, when he was struck by the message outside: “The greatest glory in living is not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall.” That message, he wrote with typical understatement, “tended to steel a person against the host of traumas he was to experience in later years.”
In the years following his release our paths crossed often. From a personal point of view I guess the most special occasions were when I shared a platform with him in 1993 speaking at the centenary of Gandhi’s arrival in South Africa and in 1995 on the first anniversary of Freedom Day, presenting him with a sculpture forged out of melted-down guns collected by Gunfree South Africa, which I headed at the time. On both occasions we had some laughs about this proud former commander of the ANC underground army become peacemaker and these two determinedly non-violent events.
The Mandela I knew became beloved by me, not so much for the grand gestures, although he was a master at political theatre, but for the lesser-known acts that revealed a truly human genius for Ubuntu—the awareness that his life was inextricably bound up with the lives of all his fellow human beings, especially his enemies. He was the great includer; nothing was too much trouble if he could cajole or charm another opponent into friendship.
This man who would not bend an inch in his determination to win freedom for his people, who would not be humiliated by the cruelty of his prison guards, yet who said to his comrades as soon as they arrived on the island, “Chaps, these Afrikaners may be brutal, but they are human beings. We need to understand them and touch the human being inside them, and win them.” And did.
This man who, on behalf of the one Muslim among them, badgered the prison authorities literally for years—six, I believe—until they at last yielded and granted permission for Kathrada to walk the 50 yards outside the prison entrance to pray in the Kramat (a holy place commemorating a Muslim Imam exiled to the Island by the Dutch in the 1740s). The whole Rivonia group accompanied him.
This man who, when former spouse Winnie shamed the Mandela name by her involvement in the kidnapping of some young men in Soweto and the killing of one of them, struggled to understand the role of his church in the drama and criticized our actions from his prison cell. And who, when we managed to send him a true record of what had happened, sent a personal apology via his lawyer, requesting “forgiveness for having misjudged you.”
This man who in his first parliamentary speech as president, announced that nursing mothers and children under six would receive free health care, “whatever had to be done to pay for it.”
This man who, when he invited the spouses and widows of former white presidents and prime ministers to tea, received news that Mrs. Betsy Verwoerd, widow of the most virulent racist of them all, had “diplomatic flu,” decided to surprise her in her whites-only redoubt instead, arriving in his helicopter and knocking on her door, and appearing later with her in a smiling photograph.
This man who, when told by his staff that they were changing the name of the parliamentary office building named after Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, suggested they hold off until Verword’s widow had passed on. “There is no need to hurt her unnecessarily. It can wait.”
This man who, when told that one of his personal armed bodyguards had links with a far right-wing racist group and had been removed, said, “I don’t think we should do that. He is young and immature and it will destroy him. Let’s give him another chance.”
This man who, when we presented him with our list of nominated truth commissioners for him to make the final cut, asked first, “Have we sufficient women on the list? We must have gender equity.” And when we told him that we had been able to find only one candidate of integrity from strife-torn KwaZulu Natal, he disregarded the process and just went ahead and appointed a Methodist bishop from the region, knowing that unless KZN was better represented, the Truth Commission would not be accepted there.
This man who, when I led a small delegation to meet with him about the crisis of guns and killing going on in 1994, came shuffling into the grand conference room next to his presidential office in Pretoria wearing an old pair of slippers. He sat down and said, “I’m tired Peter. It’s been a hard day, you chair the meeting please,” and closed his eyes. He wasn’t asleep, however. At some point he looked up from the list of participating religious groups and asked, “Where are the Dutch Reformed Churches?” I said that they had been very difficult to persuade about the gun hand-in campaign. “Well,” he said, “if I’m to be patron of this, you need to get them in.”
This man who asked me to write a speech he was to give to a church conference, and who, wherever I referenced the “role of the churches” in the liberation struggle, or in leading protests or caring for victims, struck out the world “churches” and inserted the words “faith communities,” in order to be more inclusive of other faiths in the land he now governed.
This man who never tried to hide his feet of clay, lived comfortably in his skin, and never lost an opportunity to deprecate his own accomplishments, lightly deflecting praise to others.
What a very human being!
How blest are those of a gentle spirit …
How blest are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail …
How blest are those who show mercy …
How blest are those whose hearts are pure …
How blest are the peacemakers …
How blest are those who have suffered persecution for the cause of right …
We are so grateful that God made Nelson R. Mandela, purified him in suffering and gave him to our divided land to help us become different—the kind of people we were meant to be.
We are so grateful that he now rests. He always said it was in our hands. Now it is.
7 December, 2013
Peter Storey  is a South African Methodist minister who is a former president of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA), and of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), and Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School. He delivered a sermon at Duke Divinity School on Nov. 12, 2013.