Exploding the Myth of the Black Christian Past: What Can the New Black Church Learn from the Funeral Ceremony of Nelson Mandela?

Article excerpt

Rolihlahla Mandela was born and raised in the royal court of the Thembu people one of several ethnic groups of Xhosa nation in South Africa. He was given the name "Nelson" by a school teacher in the Methodist primary school he attended as a child in his ancestral village Qunu--the same place where he was laid to rest according to Xhosa traditional funerary rites on December 15, 2013. The "Christian" name Nelson was imposed on him as a customary practice to Europeanize black South Africans and usher them into the beneficence of Western Christendom. The result however was not so much the obliteration of his Xhosa identity, but the unfolding a man who had the ability to manage and negotiate the multiple cultural worlds of South Africa. Yet in a recent Time Magazinearticle about Nelson Mandela's legacy as a protester, prisoner and peacemaker Richard Stengal notes that when he once asked Mandela about his own mortality and death, Mandela remarked he would be joining his ancestors. It had occurred to Stengal that he had never heard Mandela talk about God or heaven. His impression of Mandela was that despite his legal training, worldliness and Methodist education it was the wisdom of Mandela's Xhosa elders that most guided his life's work and mission to forge a democratic South Africa. Mandela's legacy as an anti-apartheid revolutionary, freedom fighter, peacemaker and founder of a democratic South Africa had been incubated in the traditional values and culture of Africa, South Africa--the traditions of his people the Xhosa.

These same traditions that nurtured Mandela as a child also served as the basis of his funerary rites to facilitate his return to the spirit world, the ancestors. Given his role as a statesman and his upbringing as a Methodist one may ask why were the Christian and official state ceremonies insufficient. Why were they not enough? What was the significance of bidding farewell to Mandela according to Xhosa traditional culture and spirituality?

The most obvious response is that Mandela was raised in the royal house of the Themba people and like his father was groomed to serve as an advisor to the king--a rank equivalent to a Themba chief. Therefore it was appropriate that Mandela be buried in the tradition of Themba royalty. Second Mandela's body and hence his spirit could not remain in Pretoria because it was necessary for the Themba elders to accompany and escort his spirit back to the ancestors by talking to his body and preparing him for his return journey. This ritual also consisted of various purifications, the slaughtering of a cow and ox, the wrapping of the body in animal skins and the draping of Mandela's casket in a lion skin. All of this could only happen in Mandela's home village Qunu. Third and I believe the most crucial to understanding African and African Diaspora culture and spirituality is the persistence, resiliency and vitality of African Traditional Religion despite the historic presence of Christianity, Islam and to a lesser degree Judaism in global African communities. Colonization, Christianization and even Islamization has not eradicated the traditional culture and spirituality of African people, but in an ironic twist have often unwittingly served as the mediators of the reinvention and revitalization of these traditions.

Ali A. Mazrui popularized the notion of Africa's triple heritage of westernization, Islam and Christianity, but what must also be acknowledged is Africa's most enduring and fundamental heritage, humanity's most ancient spiritual culture, African Traditional Religions. This is what the world witnessed in the burial of Madiba--the idea that in Africa neither the state nor Christianity has the final word regarding death, but the ancestors reign supreme and represent the cultural and metaphysical core of a plethora of African cultures. In fact Mandela's funerary rites signaled the prevalence and commonality of African traditional culture in guiding the most important life stages in African culture such as death, birth, puberty, marriage and elderhood. …


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