Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Nelson Mandela and the World After Apartheid

Gideon Strauss


By Gideon Strauss

December 6, 2013

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (July 18, 1918 - December 5, 2013) first came to national prominence in the 1950s as a leader of the African National Congress’s Defiance Campaign against laws oppressing black South Africans. 

Following the March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in which police officers killed sixty-nine protesters, Mandela renounced nonviolent resistance and with other members of the ANC formed its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).

In 1962 Mandela was sentenced to prison for life because of his participation in this armed struggle. During his twenty-seven years in prison, Mandela became the most widely recognized symbol of the struggle against apartheid.

In February 1990 Mandela was released from prison as part of a process of negotiations that eventually led to a relatively peaceful transition from apartheid to a non-racial constitutional democracy. And on May 10, 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president. As president, Mandela proved particularly adept at negotiating the differences among South Africans and nudging opposing camps toward compromise and reconciliation.

The life and work of Nelson Mandela raises important questions about just war doctrine, the alleviation of poverty, and the relationships between the state, the market, faith communities, and other spheres of society.

The most important question Mandela faced in his political career was how we take care of our differences, politically speaking. Mandela’s political career started in opposition to a political system built on the conviction that the most significant political realities are our racial and ethnic differences. Apartheid was designed to segregate people based on the color of their skin and their mother tongues. Its purported vision was to divide South Africa into a quilt of nation-states with geographically independent and politically independent “homelands” for each of South Africa’s larger indigenous ethnic communities. In practice, apartheid privileged people who were racially classified as “white” and exploited and oppressed people who were racially classified as “non-white.”

The stated goal of the struggle against apartheid was the building of a non-racial constitutional democracy to replace apartheid. This goal was accomplished in the 1990s, and it is in such a democracy that Mandela governed as president. The establishment of a non-racial democracy in South Africa has not, however, eradicated the reality of differences that must be accounted for in the pursuit of public justice.

One aspect of this reality is that South Africa, like much of the rest of Africa, continues to be troubled by tribalism. While tribal identity is a potentially wholesome variant of the kind of ethnic and cultural identities that have helped people throughout the ages to make something of the world, resulting in a rich variety of languages and a beautiful diversity of food, song, dance, dress, style, and social traditions, in much of Africa tribalism has been the source of virulent hatred and bloody violence. In South Africa, tribal animosities continue to be an element in political life – perhaps even increasingly so – while not resulting in quite the same level of public violence as it has in some other parts of the continent.

Partly because of the leadership of Nelson Mandela, we live in a world after apartheid. But we do not live in a world without differences, and our differences continue to result in deep divides and destructive conflicts. The example and legacy of Mandela are signposts towards a world in which differences of language and culture do not divide and destroy, but instead delight and enrich our common life.

While that better world will not fully come until the glorious return of Jesus, those of us who confess that Jesus is Lord are called to craft, exemplify, and promote a principled pluralism for the sake of the common good. That is, we are to work for a public justice in which diversity is not denied its significance or replaced by homogeneity, but also in which the significance of one or another difference is not exaggerated to the point that one community attacks or exploits or oppresses others. And we are able to be principled pluralists because we know that the love of God does not replace our other loves (including the love of our cultural communities and political nations), but does order our loves properly, so that all loves are made relative to the love of God, and expressive of a love of neighbor in the pursuit of the common good.

-  Gideon Strauss is a senior fellow of the Center for Public Justice and the executive director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. A South African by birth, he was a conscientious objector against military service under apartheid and an interpreter for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”