Nelson Mandela was one of the most important figures in the 20th century. In his struggle to free South Africa from apartheid, Mandela embodied the power of the human spirit in overcoming systemic oppression, offering hope to millions around the world who continue to strive for a more just and peaceful world. His autobiography Long Walk To Freedom is the best source for understanding his religious, spiritual and humanist worldview, and most of the quotes in this overview come from that text, unless otherwise stated.
Mandela's mother was Methodist and Nelson was baptized Methodist too, though his father was a priest in his village:
He did not need to be ordained, for the traditional religion of the Xhosas is characterized by a cosmic wholeness, so that there is little distinction between the sacred and the secular.
He was quite religious for a time, as much of his education was received in Methodist schools. This influence inspired an appreciation for not only the spiritual contributions of the church, but also its importance in advancing the social needs of the people:
The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church.
However, later in life he also recognized how the church, specifically the Dutch Reform Church, was complicit in oppression of the African people, saying:
The (apartheid) policy was supported by the Dutch Reform Church, which furnished apartheid with its religious underpinnings by suggesting that Afrikaners were God's chosen people and that blacks were a subservient species. In the Afrikaner's worldview, apartheid and the church went hand in hand.
Another insight into the religious world view of Mandela came in the discussion of the use of violent vs. non-violent means in the struggle against apartheid. In Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela explains his difference of opinion on non-violence with Mahatma Gandhi's son, Manilal Gandhi, who was the editor of the newspaper Indian Opinion:
I saw nonviolence in the Gandhian model not as an inviolable principle but as a tactic to be used as the situation demanded. The principle was not so important that the strategy should be used even when it was self- defeating, as Gandhi himself believed. I called for nonviolent protest for as long as it was effective. This view prevailed, despite Manilal Gandhi's strong objections.
When Mandela did go to jail, it was to be for 27 long years. But according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking to PBS, it was a time of deep growth for him:
I think what happened to him in prison was something that you have to now accept my authority for it, that suffering can do one of two things to a person. It can make you bitter and hard and really resentful of things. Or as it seems to do with very many people--it is like fires of adversity that toughen someone. They make you strong but paradoxically also they make you compassionate, and gentle. I think that that is what happened to him.
The power of this transformation carried over into his worldview. He wrote about universal concern for humanity and justice for all in his autobiography, on the night of his election as President of South Africa:
From the moment the results were in and it was apparent that the ANC was to form the government, I saw my mission as one of preaching reconciliation, of binding the wounds of the country, of engendering trust and confidence. I knew that many people, particularly the minorities, whites, Coloureds, and Indians, would be feeling anxious about the future, and I wanted them to feel secure. I reminded people again and again that the liberation struggle was not a battle against any one group or color, but a fight against a system of repression. At every opportunity, I said all South Africans must now unite and join hands and say we are one country, one nation, one people, marching together into the future.
Perhaps nothing signifies Nelson Mandela's religious ideals more than the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation that he set up with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It serves as a testament to the idea that past wrongs should be identified and atoned for, and while not forgotten, they might be forgiven.
Now the challenge is for all of us to protect our democratic gains like the apple of our eye. It is for those who have the means, to contribute to the efforts to repair the damage brought by the past. It is for those who have suffered losses of different kinds and magnitudes to be afforded reparation, proceeding from the premise that freedom and dignity are the real prize that our sacrifices were meant to attain. Free at last, we are all masters of our destiny. A better future depends on all of us lending a hand - your hand, my hand.
In the end, perhaps the idea that best sums up Nelson Mandela's religious and spiritual outlook is the African concept of Ubuntu. Nelson Mandela himself explained the concept in this video:
A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?