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Bishop Reflects on Nelson Mandela

by glynch — last modified 09 Dec, 2013 09:42 AM

Bishop Nicholas was fortunate enough to meet Nelson Mandela on a number of occasions. He reflects on the meaning of a great life.

Bishop Reflects on Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela in 2008. © Some rights reserved. Courtesy of South Africa The Good News:

When he was the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Bishop Nicholas Holtam said Grace at the lunch President Mandela gave the Queen and hundreds of others during his State visit in 1996 and encountered Nelson Mandela a number of times. Here he reflects on the great man’s life.


Nelson Mandela’s greatness lay in the dignity with which he carried himself and dealt with others. He was one of the giants of our times. He made us all stand taller. 

In 1962 with other opponents of apartheid, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Rivonia Treason Trial. He served 27 years in prison. Few have kept their dignity and sustained the hope of their people with such grace and personal authority as he did from prison. 

Nowadays there’s a tendency to romanticize what that prison was like. Robben Island has become one of Cape Town’s tourist attractions. It tells a good story of courage and determination in a struggle that was eventually won. It is talked about as, ”the university of the African National Congress”. In some ways it was, the human spirit is very strong; but a friend of mine who served three years there as a young man says, “Robben Island was Hell.”

When Mandela was released in 1990 he brokered a remarkable deal with white South African President F W de Klerk for which the two of them won the Nobel Prize. He realised he and the Black people of South Africa would not be free unless their oppressors were also free. In his inauguration speech as President of South Africa on 10th May 1994 Mandela said:

“We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

“We understand it still there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world.”

Two years later, I stood in a Black Township on the Cape Flats with people who lived in what seemed to me very poor shacks with communal toilet blocks. Electricity was being installed and roads were being made.  You could feel the hope. A man called Justice told me with pride, “This is heaven”. 

That same year in 1996 President Mandela made a State visit to the United Kingdom. I was vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, next door to the South African High Commission in London.  I treasure a gift from a Jewish South African photographer, the contact sheet of a series of black and white photographs showing President Mandela walking across Trafalgar Square through the crowds to South Africa House. As he came towards the camera, he heard a child crying, looked towards her, picked her up and the young white girl stopped crying. It was what Mandela did for South Africa and renewed the hope of the world. He showed us the meaning of forgiveness, the dignity of all people and the hope of reconciliation.

Back in 1988 an estimated 600 million people around the world watched Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday concert at Wembley. The world sang, Free Nelson Mandela, and that is my prayer now the great man has died. May he rest in peace.

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