Presenting a paper entitled Convergences of Christianity, politics and culture in Mandela’s burial: An asset for a nation in transition, during the International Summer School, SMMS President Prof Simangaliso Kumalo, described the final ceremonies of former President Nelson Mandela as a rare expression of the deeply rooted interface between religion, politics and culture in the South African society.

“That this could occur in spite of the tensions that exist between the three worlds of Christianity, politics and cultural practices was an attempt of Mandela’s instruction that he be buried as a Christian. It was also an indication of the extent to which he had attempted to live his life by drawing resources from these three aspects: his culture as a Xhosa, his conversion to Christianity and his contribution to the political transition of the South African society as a leader,” Prof Kumalo said.

Mandela might be viewed as a person who consciously defined himself as an agent of the interface between culture, politics and faith, Prof Kumalo argued.

He said, “His burial was prepared for by the state, family and the church almost ten years before his death. He died in the presence of the state (a military doctor), traditional leadership (Chief Mandla and Mandela family) and the church (Rev Mehana). His memorial service in Johannesburg was conducted by political principals, supervised by traditional leadership and officiated by religious leaders. Preparation of his body for burial followed Xhosa traditional customs and rituals; the body lay in state at the Union building (a political practice) and Christian prayer services were held throughout the country.

“When Mandela’s body arrived at Mthatha airport, it was in the political hands of the army. At the gate of the Mandela home, Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa handed over the body to the AbaThembu chiefs. The family handed over the body to the Methodist Church for burial according to his wishes.”

The convergence of the three was also evident at his burial: “At Mandela’s burial there was a clear accommodation of Christian rites with the structure of traditional ideals, both accompanied by political presence. Traditional leaders were clad in animal skins joining political leaders in dark suits, while religious leaders were clad in their red, purple, white and black clerical garbs,” Prof Kumalo said.

Yet there were also divergences between his Christian faith and his culture.

Prof Kumalo said, “Mandela overlooked his daughter and offered chieftainship to his grandson, Mandla. Gender stereotypes overcame him. Mandela allowed Graca to keep her former husband’s surname (Machel), something that was against his culture but allowed it as an act of magnanimity. Mandela also left some inheritance for Machel’s children much to the dissatisfaction of Winnie and the other children. This was another divergence from his culture. But this should be understood as another sign of his generosity and grace, which is consistent with Christianity, but not with his culture.”