Death has a way of testing our patience. This was not the day we thought Nelson Mandela would die.
We thought he would die months ago when he was in a critical but stable condition. We thought he would die years ago when he withdrew from public life due to poor health and old age.
Mandela served 27 years of imprisonment against his wish. But after his release and after being South Africa's first black president, he had to serve another prison term against his wish too.
Mandela has been a prisoner between life and death for years. We can imagine the pain Mandela had to endure every day of his life after the age of 85. We can imagine his heart knocking on the door of death, his life lingering at the gates of death, wishing death to take the pain away from him. But death could not listen although life had almost released Mandela.
Death is stubborn. Death takes us when it wants not when we want. But death’s delay to take Mandela has helped us to build castles in our hearts for his eternal home. He was not perfect. But he was the closest to a secular saint in our times. He shall live in the heart of humanity forever.
Leadership scholars have written about lessons Mandela has offered the world except one which I do now.
Mandela never attached himself to any religion. He knew as a leader he had to stay above divisions of faiths. He stood for umunthu, something higher than religion. Humanity is above the faiths we hold on to passionately.
The man Mandela was wise enough to know what to do regarding religion. He never went to Vatican to ask for a grand cathedral and a Catholic university in Qunu. He never went to Saudi Arabia to ask for a grand mosque and an Islamic university in South Africa. Mandela knew that religion must be left to the clergy. He never excited anyone with an idea of an Islamic city with a mosque and a university. He never excited anyone with a semi Vatican in South Africa.
Any leader who wants to appeal to all must stay away from politics of religion. This does not mean such a leader does not have faith in God. No. They should go to church like any other man, without pomp as Bingu wa Mutharika did or go to mosque and back home without sirens as Bakili Muluzi did. But stay above politics of religion.
Hopefully, our leaders in Africa and elsewhere will learn this lesson from Mandela, a man who for years knocked on the door of death and was kept in a prison between life and death.
Yet he remained calm, not making the world share his pain, never making his pain a theology. He was just a man, a simple man, one who says on his grave, we must write: Here lies a man who has done his duty on Earth.
Simple yet powerful. We all have a duty on Earth, we must find that duty and perform it for the sake of our children’s children.