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Young people of all races study the Bible together during the Southern Africa Bible College lectureship in 2009.
Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

Mandela legacy in South Africa: All races worship freely

Anti-apartheid champion’s quest for equality and justice draws praise from leaders of Churches of Christ.

Bullets came flying at Alan Martin as he stepped off a Cape Town, South Africa, bus after a Wednesday night Bible study.

Martin, now dean of the College of Biblical Studies at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City, grew up in a segregated church and faced violence and oppression during the apartheid era.

Apartheid — an Afrikaans word meaning “the state of being apart” — was a government policy of segregation and racial and economic discrimination against non-whites.

Nelson Mandela (IMAGE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS) “When I became a teenager, I became aware of apartheid. I just saw the discrimination, and I saw the unfairness,” Martin said as he reflected on anti-apartheid champion Nelson Mandela, whose Dec. 5 death at age 95 drew tears and condolences worldwide.

Like admirers around the globe, the roughly 30,000 members of Churches of Christ in South Africa celebrated the legacy of Mandela, who served as the nation’s first black president from 1994 to 1999.

In today’s South Africa, Christians of all races — including blacks, whites and “coloreds,” as those of mixed races are known — can worship together freely. That’s just one legacy of the life of Mandela, who had Methodist roots and wrote in a 1975 letter, “Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps trying.”

Stephen Sheasby (IMAGE VIA FACEBOOK)Mandela’s efforts “had a profound effect on the church because we can now worship together under the same roof, regardless of skin color or language,” said Stephen Sheasby, a Church of Christ member and executive director of Mission Providence, which rescues abandoned babies in Durban, South Africa. “We are truly free in Christ together.”
A one-time militant activist, Mandela spent 27 years in prison for opposing South Africa’s white-minority regime, then became a global symbol of forgiveness and racial reconciliation.
“As black South Africans, many of us had expected him to pay revenge and correct the wrongs that we had suffered, but he came out preaching forgiveness and unity,” said Nduduzo Collen Ngaleka, a graduate theology student at Oklahoma Christian. “He not only preached it, but his ability to demonstrate it before us impacted every South African.”
As black South Africans, many of us had expected him to pay revenge and correct the wrongs that we had suffered, but he came out preaching forgiveness and unity.”Nduduzo Collen Ngaleka

Martin remembers taking to the streets to demonstrate peacefully in the 1970s.

“The only time we started to be really oppositional, burning tires and all kinds of stuff, was when the police attacked,” Martin said. “They sprayed us with those massive fire-engine water guns and shot at us with rubber bullets.”

During later rioting, the government declared a state of emergency and ordered people off the streets. Martin ignored the warning and went to church.

After the service, authorities spotted Martin exiting a city bus and fired — with real bullets.

He ran and hid, eventually making it home safely in the dark.

At that time, the government portrayed the imprisoned Mandela as a communist and a terrorist.

“Nelson Mandela was a complex man and a complex leader,” said Neal Coates, chairman of the Department of Political Science at Abilene Christian University in Texas.

“He made positive statements about democracy and human rights throughout his life,” Coates said. “At other times, he acted on and believed in ideologies which go against democratic principles and the market system. For those reasons, Mandela’s legacy will inspire many to revere him, while others will be critical.”

In his early years, Mandela followed the nonviolent path of Mahatma Gandhi, said Tom Stipanowich, professor of law at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

In the first half of the 20th century, Gandhi led India to independence and inspired movements for nonviolence, civil rights and freedom around the world.

But after South Africa’s Sharpeville massacre of 1960 — in which police opened fire and killed 69 demonstrators — Mandela decided to fight violence with violence.

“Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress were caught, convicted of terrorism and imprisoned,” Stipanowich said. “It was later, upon his emergence from prison, that Mandela rose above the political realm to become the voice of moral leadership for all of South Africa.

“It is no exaggeration to say that Mandela brought his country back from the brink of civil war and made possible the transition to a government of the governed,” the professor added.

In the process, Mandela won over many skeptics of all colors, Martin said.

“He became a hero to just about everybody,” said Martin, who helped establish the Cape Town School of Preaching and plant new Churches of Christ in his home county before immigrating permanently to the United States.

“I’m unsure of Mandela’s church background, but one thing I’m sure about is that he practiced something that we all can learn from,” the Bible college dean added, “and that is, forgiving your neighbor and making a difference in the world by embracing God’s magnificent principle of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
Nelson Mandela was a complex man and a complex leader.” Neal Coates

Before giving up a high-profile government post to focus on the Great Commission, Fred Bergh worked closely with Mandela.

Bergh, now director of Southern Africa Bible College in Benoni, east of Johannesburg, served as an ambassador to the United Nations during Mandela’s presidency.

“Mandela became an icon in the world because of his truthful fight for what was fair and just for all people,” Bergh, who helped craft a new South African constitution under Mandela, told The Christian Chronicle.

Fred Bergh (PHOTO PROVIDED BY SOUTHERN AFRICA BIBLE COLLEGE)“As a serving diplomat, you are often in the company of people holding high office who make superficial and insincere promises, most of which are short-term solutions to the problems that beset man,” said Bergh, a preacher and elder for the Ashlea Gardens Church of Christ in South Africa’s capital of Pretoria.
But Mandela was different, said Bergh, who previously worked as a lawyer in the apartheid-era government of F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president. Mandela and de Klerk shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for the country’s democratic transition.

Mandela spent his life fighting white racism, Bergh said.

“When he became president, he stated that he would continue his quest for justice by fighting any and all racism as well as for the rights and dignity of children,” the former diplomat added. “He was true to his word on all counts and performed his tasks with incredible passion.”
He was true to his word on all counts and performed his tasks with incredible passion.” Fred Bergh RACIAL HARMONY IN ‘RAINBOW NATION’

In 2009, the Chronicle reported on new signs of racial harmony among churches in the country that Mandela touted as a “Rainbow Nation.”

At that year’s Southern Africa Bible College lectureship, 500 Christians sang first in English, then in Venda, one of 11 official languages in Africa’s wealthiest and most developed country.
A few nights earlier, the same diverse crowd praised God in Zulu, another official language.

Tarryn Jane Roy (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)Tarryn Jane Roy, 26, a member of the Springs Church of Christ, east of Johannesburg, said she’s too young to recall apartheid.

“I have many friends of different races and cultures,” Roy said. “I couldn’t help but tell all my friends (after Mandela’s death) how blessed I am to live in a day that we can have an open friendship.

“What makes South Africa such an amazing country is that we’ve embraced what initially tore us apart,” she added. “We’ve learned to share cultures, to share meals — braai vleis, bunny chows, chesa nyama — and to combine our languages.

“I love my country. I love all its people and its diversity. And I can thank Mandela and those who fought with him for that.”

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