In the 1980s and 90s, international political analysts were predicting armed revolution and a bloodbath in South Africa between the white Afrikaners (the minority who ruled the country) and the blacks of South Africa, who were rising up in opposition to the Afrikaner government.
Yet there was a man named Nelson Mandela, who was serving a life prison sentence for conspiracy to overthrow the Afrikaner government (he was imprisoned from 1964 to 1990), who came to symbolize Black South African resistance to Apartheid. Mandela is one of the most remarkable leaders, if not the most remarkable, in my generation. For after 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela essentially walked away from his prison cell in 1990 and said “I forgive you.” Then in 1994, Mandela became the first African president of South Africa in a fully represented democratic election.
What Mandela did in presidential office was astounding. Somehow, through his generous spirit, he was able to put a seething nation on the brink of revolution at ease and begin the long road toward reconciliation. When Mandela first entered the presidential suite in 1994 the white employees were all packing out their desks. Mandela called a meeting then and there and encouraged them to stay! He also took a keen interest in the South African rugby team, with its one token black player, as a symbol for national unity. This was just the tip of the iceberg of Mandela’s reconciling efforts, yet these were both symbolically significant and set the tone for his presidency.
One of my all-time, favorite movies is “Invictus,” which chronicles the relationship of Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) and Francois, the Captain of the South African Rugby Team (played by Matt Damon). Friends of both Mandela and Francois were advising against their relationship. Yet, slowly the skepticism and distrust between the two men waned and a genuine respect between Mandela and Francois ensued. Their loyalty and friendship against the odds modeled for the nation that reconciliation was possible.
Mandela has one of the most unlikely biographies imaginable—much stranger than fiction. How does a man unjustly sent to prison for 27 years, not only resist bitterness and hatred, but emerge with a deeply compassionate, generous, and reconciling spirit that helps rebirth a nation? My only explanation is The Holy Spirit. Mandela’s story and South Africa’s story are nothing short of a miracle. They are Easter stories.