Nelson Mandela will be remembered around the world as the emblematic face of the struggle against apartheid. Perhaps more than any other individual, Mandela, who died on December 5, 2013 at age 95, embodied the effort to scrap apartheid in South Africa and bring the nation’s exclusive white rule to an end. Upon his death, he is known for his character and its transformation of a nation. Yet, throughout most of his life, Mandela was a controversial and divisive figure.
As Mandela confessed to his official biographer, Anthony Sampson, he was “no angel” (Mandela, p. xxvi). He began his public life in an alliance with communists—playing a role many today would plainly label as that of a terrorist. To the white Afrikaner government of South Africa, Mandela was a figure whose influence they desperately sought to extinguish, but could not. Yet, to millions among the black majority, he was a hero who could seemingly do no wrong.
The infamous “Sharpeville massacre” in March 1960 convinced the African National Congress that a more militant resistance against apartheid was needed. A military wing of the organization was formed, with Mandela as its leader. Campaigns of bombing and sabotage were organized, and Mandela was arrested and jailed, eventually being sentenced in 1964 to life imprisonment.
Mandela had spent 27 years in jail before an international campaign led South Africa’s apartheid government to grant him release in 1990. During the years of his imprisonment, South Africa underwent great changes, and so did Mandela. Those years in prison are key to understanding the process of introspection and character growth that led to “transforming the headstrong activist into the reflective and self-disciplined world statesman” (Mandela, p. xvii).
Those prison years were times of testing, of endurance, developing self-control and never giving up; maintaining the vision of a multi-racial and democratic South Africa for all. Mandela said he was ready to lay down his life and die for democracy so black people in South Africa could at last become free. His resolute character came to embody his people’s pain and their eventual triumph. So remarkable was the transformation—both of the man and of his country—that in 1993 both he and his former jailer, South African President F. W. de Klerk, received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in dismantling the apartheid regime.
For five years, from 1994–1999, Mandela served as President of South Africa—the first black man to hold that office after decades of white rule. Despite his radical beginnings, Mandela came to be seen as a representative of, and advocate for, moderation, understanding and reconciliation. Even many of his bitterest opponents from the past marveled at the change in the man, who had grown from a bitter revolutionary to an advocate for peace, justice and unity among former enemies.
Upon his death, millions across the nation of South Africa are crying out for the continuance of the principles Mandela came to represent in his later life. Was Mandela’s character perfect? Of course not, and some will prefer to focus on his troubling beginnings while downplaying his growth and his legacy. Today’s ANC and the South African government are widely recognized as not measuring up to Mandela’s lofty ideals. Yet our world cries out for perfect leadership—perfect justice, peace and reconciliation. Thankfully, a leader is soon coming who will be free of the failings common to mankind. Jesus Christ perfectly embodied His Father’s character. He was the “express image” (Hebrews 1:3) of all His Father was.
Just as we can come to know the Father by knowing Christ (John 14:7-9), so we can aspire to the same character—“the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). Indeed, the life’s work of each and every Christian is to take on the very character of God as laid out by Christ in the Scriptures. Why? So that, after the resurrection when Jesus Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God on this earth, we—equipped with God’s own character—will reign with and under Him.