Rolihlahla Mandela was born into the royal household of the Thembu tribe. As a member of the lesser, or left Hand House, he was not bred to rule (like those in the Right Hand House), but, like his father before him, to counsel those that rule. This was to be his destiny, and one that he was proud of. He said:
“My roots were my destiny, and I believed that I would become a counsellor to the Thembu king. My horizons did not extend beyond Thembuland and I believed that to be a Thembu was the most enviable thing in the world.”
This would have come to pass, had it not been for colonial Christianity. Let me explain:
Mandela’s father, Gadla, befriended two brothers who were an exception in Qunu: they were educated, and they were Christian. Although Gadla reserved his own faith for the great Spirit of the Xhosa’s, Qamata, the brothers faith did rub off on Mandela’s mother. She became a Christian and, due to her influence, Nelson was baptized into the Methodist Church.
One of the brothers then suggested that Nelson, who was ‘a clever young fellow’, should go to school. Nelson’s father, although uneducated himself, decided that his son should be educated, and so Nelson attended the only school in the area which was run by the Methodist Church.
When Nelson’s father died, Nelson was adopted by the regent of the Thembu people, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo. Chief Jongintaba was also a missionary convert, and Mandela had the benefit of attending an even better Methodist school which was situated next door to the royal palace.
Reverend Matyolo, the Methodist preacher in the area, ‘made a strong impression’ on Nelson. Nelson would go on to say:
‘I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church. The mission schools trained the clerks, the interpreters and the policemen, who at the time represented the height of African aspirations.’
Nelson attended church every Sunday with the Regent’s family – ‘the Regent took his religion very seriously’, and Nelson was baptised in due course.
Nelson moved on to continue his senior schooling at the Clarkebury Insitute, founded in 1825 at one of the oldest Wesleyan missions in the Transkei. The regent himself had attended school there. The governor of the school, Reverend Harris, according to the regent was ‘a white Thembu, a white man who in his heart loved and understood the Thembu people.’ The regent said that Nelson should afford the reverend the same respect and obedience that Nelson gave to himself as the Chief.
Neson said of Reverend Harris: ‘Behind the reverend’s mask of severity was a gentle, broad-minded individual who believed fervently in the importance of educating young Africans. Reverend Harris was an important role model for me.’
From Clarkebury Mandela went on to another Wesleyan institution, Healdtown, the college at Fort Beaufort. This was the largest African school south of the equator, with more than a thousand students.
As a direct result of his Christian upbringing and education, Nelson Mandela went on to begin South Africa’s first black law firm. This was the root of his struggle beginnings. There is no doubt that Nelson Mandela would never have become an ANC member, or leader, without his education. At best he would have become what his birth right had dictated: an advisor to the Thembu Chief in the Transkei.
So we do have a reason, after all, to celebrate Christian colonialism in South Africa: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.