Mandela2“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” —Nelson Mandela

In 1994 Nelson Mandela was elected to the presidency of South Africa.  Things were tense: 14,000 people had died in violence in the four years since his release from prison in 1990.  Everyone predicted a bloodbath.  Confounding the experts, however, the new regime did not yield to the politics of revenge.  Instead, Mandela made peaceful overtures to the white minority and appointed Desmond Tutu to deal with atrocities not through court trials but through an innovative Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would allow the nation to forgive without forgetting.

Bill Clinton tells of a conversation he had with Nelson Mandela.  “Didn’t you really hate them for what they did?” Clinton asked.  Mandela replied, “Oh, yeah, I hated them for a long time.  I broke rocks every day in prison, and I stayed alive on hate.  They took a lot away from me.  They took me away from my wife, and it subsequently destroyed my marriage.  They took me away from seeing my children grow up.  They abused me mentally and physically.  And one day, I realized they could take it all except my mind and my heart.  Those things I would have to give to them, and I simply decided not to give them away.”

Mandela and Clinton

Clinton pressed him.  “Well, what about when you were getting out of prison?  I got my daughter Chelsea up and we watched you on television as you walked down that dirt road to freedom.  Didn’t you hate them then?”

Mandela said, “As I felt the anger rising up, I thought to myself, ‘They have already had you for twenty-seven years.  And if you keep hating them, they’ll have you again.’  And I said, ‘I want to be free.’  And so I let it go.  I let it go.”

With that attitude Mandela set a tone for the entire country.  Black leaders urged their followers not to give in to their anger, however merited, but instead to let it go, to move forward in their newly won freedom.  White churches, many of which had supported the oppressive white regime, were taken aback by the new spirit of cooperation.  Perhaps they would have a share in the country’s future after all.

Nelson MandelaThis week the nation, and the world, celebrated Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday.  Like Joseph in the Bible, he did not let his imprisonment embitter him.  Instead, he grew stronger, and when he emerged, he showed the world a new way to combat injustice.  Happy Birthday, Nelson Mandela.

(Adapted from What Good Is God?)

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9 responses to “Happy Birthday, Nelson Mandela”

  1. I came across a story from the TRC about Brian Mitchell, who was a captain who engineered a massacre in the Trust Feed community, and later gave his life to Christ and returned to the community to ask for forgiveness.

  2. John Howland says:

    Dear Philip,

    Just finished “What Good is God?”. Thanks so much for sharing these wonderful stories! I have a question about the story in chapter 21 about Officer Van der Broek and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In researching this story there seems to be some question as to whether is really happened. See here: . Can you provide any documentation about the story? Thanks!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I first came across this story in a Mennonite magazine that is normally a dependable source. Since then, however, I have seen enough questions about it to cause me to wonder about its veracity. I no longer use that story, and am sorry if I misled others. –Philip

  3. Hi Philip I know this is an old post but I’ve just discovered your blogs and your writing here and I’m enjoying them immensely thank you.
    I was listening to a sermon on Sunday and the minister talked about resentment as continuing to go back to Inspect an old wound thus not allowing to heal, and he said that this illustration or analogy came from you. I wondered if I could quote you or find your actual words on this subject?
    Got richest blessings to you and in all you do.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I’m afraid I need a little more to go on. I imagine that quote is from “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” The very word resentment is telling: it means to feel again, and again… –Philip

  4. Richard Cronin says:

    Hi Phillip

    While you are on the South Africa theme, I wonder did you ever find out anymore about the supposed lack of truth in the Van Der Broek story? I was going to use it as a sermon illustration but when I googled it I came across a website that debunked it. So sad!! It was such a good story that definitely loses its usefulness is not true… Do you know of any stories that could replace it for its power of forgiveness?
    God bless.

    I’ve read enough doubt about that story that I’ve stopped using it. Too many versions, too little verification. There were similar scenes, I know, as depicted in Antje Krog’s “Country of My Skull.” I’ve also heard equally powerful stories from Rwanda, including some reported in “Christianity Today,” though I don’t have them at my fingertips. You may want to search the CT archives.

  5. Sandy Volentine says:

    Happy Birthday to a great man. I hope he lives to be a hundred.

  6. Robert says:

    Happy Birthday, Madiba! God bless you and your people.

  7. Peggy Bell says:

    Good to be reminded and good to remember. Thank you, Peggy Bell (Mrs. Clayton)

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