NELSON MANDELA was the most important political leader of the 20th century. While Roosevelt and Churchill helped protect the West and the world from Hitler’s Nazism, Mandela heroically exemplified the movement against the colonialism and racism that oppressed the global South, shown so dramatically in South Africa’s apartheid. And from a Christian point of view, he combined justice and reconciliation like no other political leader of his time, shaped by the spiritual formation of 27 years in prison.
Shortly after Mandela was released from prison, he came to New York to meet with a small group of Americans who had been involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, and I was blessed to join them. From the start, I felt in Mandela a moral authority I have never experienced with any political leader.
Attending Mandela’s inauguration in 1994 was a highlight of my life. We were picked up at the airport by friends, a couple who had both been in prison and tortured, but now she was about to become a member of the new South African parliament. We saw a group of the infamous South African security police. Having been interrogated by these thugs before, I immediately said, “Let’s get out of here!” To which they replied, “Don’t worry, Jim, they’re ours now.”
At the ceremony, joined by my South African friends, we watched Nelson Mandela announce his vision for a new rainbow nation. More than 100,000 people (and a billion or so more via TV) listened with tears in their eyes and great hope in their hearts.