Praying for Mandela

2013-07-23 00:00

ON Mandela Day, I participated in a big Mandela prayer meeting that was held at the Nelson Mandela capture site outside Howick.

We had close to 1 000 people. The event was organised by the Premier’s Office, the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council and other community organisations.

It is not surprising that the premier and other provincial leaders attended. I had been requested to say a special prayer for Madiba and his family. What a huge and intimidating responsibility it was. What does one say when praying for Mandela?

The prayers that have been offered by the nation for him in the past months are that he must get well and go back home. Very few people have been brave enough to pray for him to go to rest in the bosom of his forbearers or God, depending on one’s religious orientation.

There are a few reasons for this and I would like to share them with you.



In African culture (southern Africa), you don’t pray for death, but rather you pray for healing. I have been amazed at the way people have been praying for Mandela. They have been offering very mixed prayers.

Some have prayed for him to get better and go home. They have even mentioned that they want him to live many more years. Is that realistic?

This sounds selfish to me. Of course, it would be good for Madiba to stay with us, but then he must be in good health and be able to enjoy life and the fruits of his labour. Must he continue to live, even when he is unable to enjoy life because of his serious health condition?

Is that what we want and is that what he would like?

In some African cultures (e.g. Zulu and Swazi), when an old person becomes sick and does not get better, the family performs rituals to ask the ancestors and God to allow him or her to die peacefully and live a better and healthier life in the afterlife.

But because we have forgotten our culture, this has not been raised as an option. Perhaps the family has discussed this — of course, this is private family business. The good news in African culture is that even if he goes, death does not mean the end of a person, but rather he or she joins the world of the ancestors, who continue to look after us. He joins another realm of existence, which makes him omnipresent.



Christians in this part of the world pray for healing and, in this context, healing is understood in the narrow sense, which is purely recovery from sickness.

This is because prayer is understood to be an act of protest against everything that denies life and promotes death. It is built on the understanding that God is for life, not for death, and God is all-powerful and can heal at all times and all diseases.

To pray for death is like giving up on the power of God to heal and cure.

So even when it is obvious that life is no longer meaningful for a sick person, people do not have the courage to pray for death as a solution to sickness and pain. This is despite the fact that the Christian faith also teaches us about life after death.

When we are confronted with death, we tend to forget the importance of the theology of resurrection. We remember this theology once the person has died and we have to preach the funeral sermon, or officiate in the committal of the body to God.

I do think that there is a need for a theology of life and death to be developed and taught to our people.

This theology must remind us that death itself is inevitable and is another form of life in another realm, just as African culture teaches us.



I have also been hearing political prayers, which call for Mandela’s recovery because, as a nation and a country, we need him and we cannot go forward without him. The government and political leaders have also organised prayer meetings, calling for religious leaders to lead these prayers.

Such prayers are motivated by the thinking that peace, stability and reconciliation in South Africa depend on Mandela’s existence.

A number of people believe that when Mandela dies, much will go wrong politically.

To pray for him to die could therefore be dangerous, for some people could misinterpret these prayers to score political points. It is difficult to know what to do in this situation.

I hope that religious leaders have the courage to pray that the nation and the family can release Mandela, for, as our African religion has taught us, in life he is with us in a limited sense, confined by space, time and health, but if he dies he will be with us in a much more powerful sense, as an ancestor, who is not confined by Earthly issues.

His spirit will watch over us and his legacy will continue to guide us, as a nation, on the right path.

• Dr R. Simangaliso Kumalo is the director: research and postgraduate studies at the Ujamaa Centre for Research and Community Development, Religion, Governance and Africa in the World Programme School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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