South Africa was saved at the cross of Jesus – where enemies are reconciled to one another1 – when threatened by civil war at the time of the transfer of power to majority rule in the early 1990s.
This is the claim of a former South African Navy officer who was chaplain to Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners on the infamous Robben Island.
He said that if civil war had broken out in his adopted country in the immediate aftermath of apartheid, it would have been “every bit as bloody” as the current strife in Syria.
“F W de Klerk (South Africa’s last white president) became a committed Christian. And he and Mandela found each other as Christians,”2 Rev Colin Chambers told a Doncaster, South Yorkshire, audience attending Life Stories at Lunch.
He went on to explain how the Christian education Mandela had received from Methodist missionaries had taught him the value of forgiveness, which became more precious during his time serving a life sentence for plotting acts of violence against the state. The young Mandela was head-boy of his school, where he led a Bible class and prayed daily during assemblies.
A pastor for an Assemblies of God church at the time, Chambers, now 73, befriended Mandela and his fellow ANC (African National Congress) inmates during regular visits to the island, just a few miles from Cape Town.
On one occasion he found himself speaking about the Jewish patriarch Joseph; how he was imprisoned in Egypt and then released to serve as Prime Minister under Pharaoh, saving two nations in the process (through relief from famine).
He then realised he might have overstepped the mark and apologised to Nelson, begging his forgiveness for insensitivity. But the ANC leader insisted: “Not at all; you give me hope!”
When the job offer was first put to him, Chambers didn’t think – as a white officer of the South African Defence Force – that he had much chance of being accepted by the prisoners, who had been fighting against the apartheid regime. But he was amazed when first introduced to their iconic leader, who said: “The name’s Mandela. You’re very welcome. How was the sea? (It can be a rough passage). And how’s your father?”
Puzzled, he thought he might have known his dad, who was the same age, but later discovered that in the Xhosa culture in which Mandela had been nurtured it was an expression that meant you were accepted.
“The general narrative among my acquaintances was that he was a terrorist getting what he deserved. He was, after all, arrested with bomb-making equipment and given a ‘free and fair trial’ by the standards of Amnesty International. But when I told my congregation at Muizenberg (near Cape Town) that ‘Mr Mandela sends his greetings’, they were initially offended. Some people called me a traitor; even a ‘Pinkie’ (meaning Communist). But I used to say: ‘If he’s ever released, you’ll see who he is.’”
“We chatted about forgiveness (around 1980/1) and how Joseph, when he met his brothers who had thrown him down a well and then sold him into slavery, had said: “You meant it for evil, but God intended it for good…” (Genesis 50.20)
Mandela is on record as saying that refusing to forgive is like “drinking poison and hoping it poisons your enemies”. He also said: “I knew that if I didn’t leave all my resentment behind, and forgive, that I would be walking out of one prison and entering another.”
South Africa is once more at the crossroads, with allegations of corruption at government level dividing the country, but Colin is encouraged by the response to a call for prayer that saw nearly two million people meet on a farmer’s field on April 22 this year to intercede for the nation before God.
It had happened before – at the cross (in 1994), where Jesus’ death brought reconciliation between the nation’s black and white leaders – and it could happen again, he said.
Asked what he believed was Mandela’s legacy to the world, he replied in just three words: “Forgiveness brings reconciliation.”
He added: “Forgiveness and reconciliation is the only way real peace can come.”
Chambers is “absolutely convinced he (Mandela) made a commitment (to Christ)”, adding that Jesus’ own test, “by their fruit you will know them”, certainly applied in his case.
“We all have the right to change. I saw a change, and I would challenge anybody to say that Nelson remained a terrorist.”
One of Mandela’s great friends, apart from former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was Assemblies of God leader Nicholas Bhengu, once dubbed the ‘black Billy Graham’.
During his time as chaplain on Robben Island, Mr Chambers got some of his ‘flock’ – Nelson and other ANC leaders including future provincial premiers – to write their names in his Bible. And he showed me the evidence.
The British-born pastor, who grew up in East London, South Africa, and now lives in Portsmouth (Britain’s naval base), said it was after he became a born-again Christian that he felt it right to stay in the Navy. “I wanted to pilot the ship, fire the guns and preach the gospel, but the Lord in his wisdom allowed me to be a prison chaplain.”
His first assignment was at Polsmoor, where Mandela was to spend the final years of his sentence, and it was due to a security breach at Robben Island that he was offered a post there.
With Mandela’s Christian education in mind, Chambers encouraged his audience to trust the assurance of Isaiah that God’s word will always achieve the purpose for which it was sent.
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
Story by Charles Gardner
1Ephesians 2.14-16 explains how men are reconciled to each other, and to God, through the crucifixion of Jesus
2They both won the Nobel Prize for Peace for their efforts towards reconciliation
Photo: Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg 2008. Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license.