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The Spirit of Freedom: South African Leaders on Religion and Politics

By Charles Villa-Vicencio

University of California Press

301 pp.; $40, hardcover; $14.95, paper.

In 1992 and early 1993, Charles Villa-Vicencio, a Methodist minister and professor at the University of Cape Town who has written several important books on the theological meaning of recent South African history, interviewed 21 leading opponents of apartheid. In each case he asked about the place of religion in the subject's personal life and for the struggle against apartheid. The result is this book, which has one chapter for each of the activists. Villa-Vicencio's roster includes names that have been prominent in the Western press, including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Joe Slovo (head of the South African Communist Party), and Beyers Naude (who was expelled from the Dutch Reformed Church in 1963 for opposing apartheid).

Villa-Vicencio's frank discussions are revealing. Mandela, for example, has long displayed an interest in religious matters. He was often a reader of Scripture at worship services during his 30 years as a prisoner on Robben Island, he speaks freely about how much he was nourished by receiving the Lord's Supper from a Methodist minister (his own church) during those years, and he has nothing but praise for the devout Christians like Prof. Z. K. Mathews and Chief Albert Lutuli who helped found the African National Congress. At the same time, Mandela speaks with delight about attending Islamic and Jewish worship services and is very reluctant to talk about his specific religious beliefs: "It is not a matter I usually regard as open for public discussion."

The most affecting reading in the book is from the chapters on figures who are largely unknown outside South Africa. The community organizer Neville Alexander grew up under sincerely Protestant parents and attended a Catholic school run by nuns of the Holy Rosary. Alexander, who is Colored, retains the greatest respect for this upbringing ...

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