All over the world, people are celebrating the life and mourning the death of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. Commentator Philip Stine recalls another man whose spiritual transformation made him an unlikely but essential partner with Mandela in forging a post-apartheid South Africa:
I grew up in a country neighboring South Africa whose laws essentially copied apartheid. Separation was our life, and race was a constant topic of conversation.
One thing I came to believe was that the whites in South Africa would never give up power; would never move from their racist policies.
And yet change did come.
I can think of no better example of grace than the way that God worked quietly and perhaps in secret through the lives of two individuals, a prisoner on Robben Island in Table Bay and the new President of the Republic of South Africa, a man elected by his party specifically because, as the son of one of apartheid’s architects, he was known to oppose majority black African rule.
The way God dealt with Frederik Willem de Klerk is a great miracle. At his inauguration as President, on September 20, 1989, his favorite pastor, Pieter Bingle, preached on a theme of religious calling. Taking Jeremiah 23 as his text, he told the new President that he was standing “in the council chamber of God” to learn the will of the Lord, and that he should act upon it. Bingle went on to urge de Klerk that, as God’s instrument, he should heed the traditions of his people, but have the courage to break new ground.
In that sermon, as the Book of Hebrews says, the word of God became “alive and active and sharper than a two-edged sword.” De Klerk’s brother reported how the new President was in tears after the service, deeply affected. He had come to realize, he said to supporters at a post-inaugural gathering, that God was calling him to save all the people of South Africa, that he knew he was going to be rejected by his own people, but he had to walk that road.
And so the President began secret meetings with the Robben Island prisoner.
Nelson Mandela has now passed from us. Already historians, politicians and church leaders have described his remarkable spirit.
Think about it: imprisoned and subjected to hard labor for 27 years, a witness to the subjection and impoverishment of his people for so long. And rather than turn to angry revenge, he focused on racial reconciliation. When de Klerk went to meet with him, he was ready to work with him to find a way forward.
Philip Stine of Wilmington is a retired senior executive with United Bible Societies who lived and worked in Africa for many years. He is a Board member and former Chair of WHQR. This commentary originally appeared in, and has been updated on, the Wilmington Faith and Values website and is airing here with their permission. Commentaries on WHQR reflect the views of the authors and not necessarily those of WHQR, its Board or staff.