But the reality that the government of South Africa has, in the 20 years since the end of apartheid, not managed to protect its citizens against violent crime, and that, despite significant economic growth, masses of South Africans continue to languish in poverty, shows the limits of politics. Many of Mandela's supporters and admirers have felt that Mandela, for all the good he did, did not do enough to make South Africa a better place yet.
Yet it would be a mistake to imagine that any leader, no matter how wise, sincere, or effective, could have single-handedly ensured an even better transition out of apartheid. And it would be as much of a mistake to imagine that all of South Africa's problems—or all the problems of this beautiful but broken world—can be resolved politically.
Politics has limits. Governments can and must restrain criminals and public violence, establish just and effective laws and courts, and shape a public order within which the other spheres of human society may flourish. But not with the best will or instruments can a government and its citizenry bring parents to love their children, make the lazy diligent or the profligate frugal, or accurately anticipate all of the unintended consequences of every legislative or executive effort.
And so, much as we may honor and learn from Nelson Mandela, and resolve to live in the light of Isaiah 58, so must we also live in the light of Isaiah 60, and its sobering but hopeful revelation that in the end, all will be well, although not ultimately because of the work of human hands, but because of the outworking of the reign of God in Christ and through the Spirit—toward which the work of a Nelson Mandela is indeed a signpost.
Gideon Strauss is the executive director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and a senior fellow of the Center for Public Justice. A South African by birth, he was a conscientious objector against military service under apartheid and an interpreter for South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.