South Africa after Nelson Mandela: The church 'has its work cut out'

Moss Ntlha, General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance in South Africa, discusses Nelson Mandela's influence, his legacy, and what the church must learn from him.

A well-wisher writes a message on a poster of Nelson Mandela on which she and others have written their messages of condolence and support, in the street outside his old house in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa Friday, Dec. 6, 2013. Flags were lowered to half-staff and people in black townships, in upscale mostly white suburbs and in South Africa's vast rural grasslands commemorated Nelson Mandela with song, tears and prayers on Friday while pledging to adhere to the values of unity and democracy that he embodied.(AP)

CT: What's been the atmosphere been like following the announcement of Nelson Mandela's passing?

Moss: It's a huge sense of loss. There is a sense of emptiness that a figure like Nelson Mandela has departed from this world. I think we have woken up with a tremendous sense of loss, a loss of a colossus really. What was here is now no longer here.

CT: Is that sense of loss quite visible?

Moss: Somewhat, yes. On social media there are lots of messages of people in tears, people feeling a deep sense of loss. People are gathering together in small groups, big groups all across the country, all trying to find the best way to process what's just happened. There's a great sense that today is an important day in the history of the nation. I think also that because for the last several months we were watching Madiba suffering in hospital, that somewhat prepared people to anticipate the worst. The blow has been softened in some way.

CT: Do you have a favourite 'Mandela memory' so to speak? A particular moment which you won't forget or that resonated with you personally?

MN: Several! I think the main one though was his release from prison. All my life I had never known something quite like that. I was only four years old when he went to prison, so all my life I'd never seen him. But outside, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, when the struggle against apartheid intensified, the name of Mandela had a kind of magical, mythical influence on people. We continued the struggle because of Mandela basically. The day he was released, to use a Biblical phrase, was almost like the second coming. The excitement was quite out of this world. Thousands of people converged on the Mandela residence, even though they knew he would not be there yet, just to celebrate with one another. It was really electric, really amazing. I don't think there's been a moment like that since.

CT: For you, what is Mandela's biggest legacy?

MN: Several things. First of all he mainstreamed several things that had only been embraced by a marginal few, things that had been nominally on the left of the political spectrum. He made non-racism the norm. Before then, racism was just normal. After that, you had to apologise and you could not be racist openly. Mandela has shifted the psyche of the nation. Also the reconciliation was a very important issue, unifying a nation that was so fragmented that we never really believed we could pull this together and work together. Mandela was an important factor. I was listening to Desmond Tutu earlier today, who said that Mandela made us believe in each other in a way that very few people had done. That's an important legacy in terms of moving forward.

CT: What kind of meaning does Nelson Mandela have for South Africa's Christians?

MN: I think for Christians, Nelson Mandela was a prophet, a prophet in God's name. Christians believe that the Bible says we are the light of the world. In SA, the light of the world par excellence was Nelson Mandela, not by and large the Christian Church.

I think we in the church are in part responsible for apartheid. There is a sense that even in the new South Africa when you wanted the church to speak on a whole number of things their authority was undermined. We remember now that there were a number of issues of justice that we should have stood up against because so many of them were so evil.

We were too afraid of the danger and that led to too many of us remaining silent. There were some who stood up, but they were few, and Mandela was for the church a prophetic rebuke. The legacy is: how do we learn from the lesson of Mandela? How do we really grapple with what it means to love your neighbour? For evangelicals we've had to go into soul searching and reflective world.

What can we learn from the life and work of Nelson Mandela? How can we become a better witness, a better light? How can we love our neighbour as meaningfully and effectively as Mandela did? I think in the last 20 years, the evangelical movement in South Africa has come a long way on issues like social justice because of Mandela.

CT: How do you think South Africa will manage without its greatest son? Do you think it will it be more difficult to hold together his vision of all South Africans living as one now than he is gone?

MN: I think Mandiba's gift - and the mark of a true leader - was to let himself out of the job. He served one term, he could have served a second term if he wanted to, but he didn't make himself available. He was able to institutionalise within the South African system the checks and balances we needed. The integrity of our democratic process has been blessed with the grace of Mandiba. The institutional frame work is there to move forward and take his legacy seriously.

Where I think there may be a deficit - and this is where the Church faces a mammoth task - is to say how can we equip the post-apartheid South Africa to continue in the lessons of Mandela in terms of reconciliation? We've had lots of xenophobic attacks, as well as black on black, white on black, black on exiles. So many things that show that we haven't all taken on the lessons of Mandela there. That isn't a policy issue, as much as it a spiritual issue. The Church has its work cut out there.

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