Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Nelson Mandela life story: The prophet of tolerance, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Mandela's greatness grew from a genuine respect for other people and their beliefs

Madiba's own passion for equality and democracy as well as the enjoyment of inalienable rights for all must, to a very considerable extent, have been lit by the Biblical teaching of the infinite worth of everyone because of being created in the image of God.

It had nothing to do with extrinsic attributes or circumstances as ethnicity, skin colour or social standing. It was a universal phenomenon, and this dignity, freedom and equality of all were things that he was wanting to fight and live for, but if necessary, he would be prepared to die for. His opposition to injustice, racism and oppression were thus not just political and ideological but in a very real sense deeply religious as well.

The obverse to this was a passion for freedom, nonracialism and righteousness that would come to be enshrined in our magnificent constitution that ensures that that legacy will live forever.

He was tempered in the fire of adversity. All that he endured in the times when he was the elusive Black Pimpernel with hardly a family life to speak of, and the 27 years of incarceration, were important in the making of the man.

It gave him a new depth, helped him to be more understanding of the foibles of others, to be more generous, more tolerant, more magnanimous and it gave him an unassailable credibility and integrity, and so he could be as he was when he emerged from prison, willing to extend a hand of friendship to his former adversaries and be generous when they were vanquished.

He lived out the understanding that an enemy is a friend waiting to be made, and so could have his white former hailer attend his Presidential inauguration as a VIP guest; and have Dr Percy Yutar, who was the prosecutor in the Rivonia trial when he was sentenced to life imprisonment, the Dr Yutar who had wanted the death sentence, come to lunch with him at the Presidency; and could visit the widow of Dr Verwoerd, the high priest and architect of apartheid, for tea when she was not able the come to the Presidency.

The former terrorist could have those who used to think of him as Public Enemy No 1 eating out of his hand.

He awed everyone as a spectacular embodiment of magnanimity and forgiveness, and he saved our land from the bloodbath that most had predicted would be our lot in resolving the problem, of apartheid's vicious oppression of the vast majority of our motherland's population. Suffering can embitter, but it can also ennoble, and God blessed us richly when the latter happened in Madiba's case.

He grew in morale stature as he grew in attributes of tolerance. He would try to see the other person's point of view and so would be ready to make concessions and be on the lookout for the compromise that could often help to pull the chestnuts out of the fire.

He had been scrupulous to ensure that he demonstrated a profound respect for all the faiths to be found in our country. After he was elected by Parliament as our first democratically elected President on 9May 1994, on the Friday he went to a mosque and on the following day he attended a synagogue and on the Sunday attended a larger inter-denominational service at the FNB Stadium in Soweto. At his inauguration, prayers were offered by Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Christian ministers.

The spirit of tolerance is now enshrined in the custom that Parliament starts each day with a period of quiet to allow each person to use as is consistent with his or her faith, or lack of it. It replaces the way things were done in the old, all-white Parliament when Christian prayers were the order of the day, despite the fact that a few members were Jewish.

The respect for the things others hold dear is a precious part of the legacy that this great man leaves us and is a tremendous contribution to the kind of future we want to see, particularly at a time when religious fundamentalism of all kinds threatens global peace.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa

Further reading

Nelson Mandela dead: South Africa's first black president and anti-apartheid icon dies at 95

In The Independent on Saturday:


A special supplement celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela