PRETORIA, South Africa (BP) — “Our nation has lost its greatest son,” South African President Jacob Zuma said in announcing the loss of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the nation’s former president who died at home Thursday (Dec. 5) at age 95 after months of declining health.
“Our people have lost a father. Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss,” Zuma said.
Mandela’s “tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world,” Zuma said. “His humility, his compassion and his humanity earned him their love.”
Among world leaders, President Barack Obama voiced similar sentiments.
“Nelson Mandela achieved more than could be expected of any man,” Obama said. “His own struggle inspired others to believe in the promise of a better world, and the rightness of reconciliation. Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, he transformed South Africa –- and moved the entire world.”
In the U.S. and South Africa, respective national flags are being flown at half-staff in honor of Mandela. Obama ordered the recognition to continue through sunset Dec. 9 at the White House and other public and military facilities in the U.S.
Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, noted the heroism of the leader who rose from 27 years of incarceration to become the first black South African president as well as a hallmark of freedom and a leader of worldwide acclaim.
“Nelson Mandela’s heroism will outlast him throughout untold generations. Mandela will be remembered for standing up to a racist regime, for persevering under persecution, and for leading his country toward democracy,” Moore told Baptist Press. Mandela’s move from prison cell to president’s office was a living parable of the power of freedom over apartheid.
“Even those who don’t agree with all of Mandela’s political or religious views ought to give thanks for the many good things that came from his life and work,” Moore said. “As we remember Nelson Mandela, let’s pray for a South Africa that experiences the freedom not only of the voting booth but also of widespread Gospel reconciliation to God and to one another.”
Mandela rarely discussed religion outside the arena of religious freedom, but a transcript on NelsonMandela.org quotes his comments on religion in a 2000 Christian Science Monitor interview.
“Religion has had a tremendous influence on my own life. You must remember that during our time — right from Grade 1 up to university — our education was provided by religious institutions. I was in [Christian] missionary schools,” the transcript records Mandela as saying. “The government [of the day] had no interest whatsoever in our education and, therefore, religion became a force which was responsible for our development.
“I appreciate the importance of religion,” Mandela said. “You have to have been in a South African jail under apartheid where you could see the cruelty of human beings to each other in its naked form. Again, religious institutions and their leaders gave us hope that one day we would return.”
Nigeria native Adeniya Ojutiku, a Southern Baptist in the U.S. who fights for Christians and their livelihood in his homeland, described Mandela as “an epitome of forgiveness, kindness and love” who had “a dogged resolve for the pursuit of peace and justice.”
“His extraordinary life story, witty sense of humor and lack of bitterness toward his former oppressors has ensured global appeal for his type of charismatic leadership,” Ojutiku told Baptist Press. “Mandela has no antecedence, parallel or equal in the contemporary history of harmonious race relations.
“He rekindled hope in the humaneness and greatness of the black, colored and white races, as he soared above the petty confines of party politics and prejudice,” Ojutiku said.
Former international missionary Gordon Fort, the International Mission Board senior vice president for prayer mobilization and training, said Mandela’s leadership allowed churches to flourish in South Africa.
“While tackling the daunting task of dismantling institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality, [Mandela] gave a clarion call to national unity and religious freedom,” Fort said in an email to IMB staff. “This atmosphere led to a season of opportunity for the church and its missionary representatives to advance the Gospel, engage new people groups, and play a part in the healing of the deep rifts within the nation.
“President Mandela was among the first to invite and welcome the role of the church in the new nation he was seeking to build,” Fort wrote. “After retirement from the presidency, he continued to provide leadership and an example of statesmanship that allowed the church to flourish.”
Mandela was inaugurated in May 1994 as president of South Africa, the first black and the first leader democratically elected to the post, stepping down after one term as he had vowed. Mandela chronicled his life in his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” published in several languages.
He was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, into the Madiba clan in the small village of Mvezo in Transkei, South Africa. His teacher at the primary school Mandela attended in Qunu named him “Nelson” in accordance with custom to give all school children Christian names. Mandela heard stories of his ancestors’ valor during the wars of resistance and dreamed of helping South Africans secure freedom.
His comments to the court in 1964 that sentenced him to life in prison for his work to abolish apartheid have become immortalized.
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities,” Mandela told the court. “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
During his incarceration, Mandela developed a lung infection that would recur at times for the remainder of his life.
The United Nations on June 10, 2009, adopted Mandela’s birthday, July 18, as “Nelson Mandela International Day.”
Mandela was recognized with more than 1,100 honors and awards, received more than 100 honorary degrees, and had numerous institutions, awards, schools and streets named in his honor, according to NelsonMandela.org.
In addition to the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize he shared with former South African President F.W. deKlerk, who had joined hands with Mandela in defeating apartheid, Mandela’s honors include Time’s Person of the Year, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Sakharov Prize, the Gandhi Peace Prize, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights, the UNESCO Peace Prize, the Indira Gandhi Award for International Justice and Harmony and the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights.
Survivors include his third wife, Graça Machel, whom he married in 1998 on his 80th birthday; his former wife Winnie Mandela, three biological children and three children Machel brought into their union. He was preceded in death by three children and his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase, from whom he was divorced in 1958.
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ staff writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).