Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918-2013)

We woke this morning (Friday 6th December 2013) to the news that Nelson Mandela had died. Though expected for some time, it still came as a shock. I am not going to repeat the well-deserved tributes and obituaries but ask: what does Madiba’s life mean for us from a theological point of view?

Central to Catholic Social Thought (CST) is dignity of persons and human rights. Even a brief sketch of Mandela’s life shows us how thoroughly he stood for human rights, not just for South Africans but all people. The struggle was for human rights and the end to dehumanisation of the majority of South Africans by apartheid. After 1994, inspired in part by Mandela’s inaugural “Never again!” speech, he led the country towards a human rights culture. Though a collaborative effort of many, our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the Constitutional Court set up to arbitrate the law in the light of the Bill of Rights, is a mirror of his vision.

Mandela also lived dignity and demanded even in prison that prisoners and captors alike treat each other – and themselves – with respect. The recognition that human dignity is inherent lay also in his campaigning for the rights of women, children, refugees and especially people with HIV/AIDS. While lesser people equivocated or collaborated with stigmatising the latter, Madiba insisted that persons with HIV be treated with respect.

Linked to dignity is option for the poor and vulnerable. Mandela, though he came from Xhosa nobility and was by profession a lawyer, could have stayed aloof from the poor. Yet he remained personally in touch with ordinary poor people and tried – within all the constraints of a global economy often indifferent to the poor – to help the marginalised. Though by no means poor himself, he lived simply (certainly by the standards of many of his former comrades) and concentrated his retirement on a series of projects to help poor people and children in need.

Mandela was also a strong defender of peace and disarmament, in that – while not a pacifist – he promoted nonviolent resolution of conflict wherever possible. He was one of the central players in the negotiations that led to the 1994 democratic transition in South Africa, a process that many doubted could happen. Madiba and a core of similar minded people made it happen.

Solidarity is another CST theme Nelson Mandela made his own. During his presidency he tried to infuse in South Africans a common sense of nationhood and the need to seek the common good. His famous support for the Springbok rugby team, a minority sport in the country, was an effort to bring black and white together around a common vision, unity in diversity. In his dealings with people he had the unusual knack of being able to meet people where they were and, in doing so, to make them feel he was part of their lives.

I could go on. But I have made my point. Nelson Mandela deserves all the accolades he has received. But our greatest tribute to him, his greatest epitaph, must be in the years that follow. Madiba, you affected our lives for the good. May God help us all to take forward your great and generous vision.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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