With patience, wisdom and a willingness to sacrifice for others, Nelson Mandela led a movement to unify a divided nation and reconcile decades of pain and racism. Throughout his life, Mandela continuously chose to learn from his mistakes rather than repeat them. This personal integrity helped him win South Africa’s first democratic presidential election, and calm the fears of a nation in turmoil.
Mandela’s biggest triumph was not his election as president of South Africa, rather, it was the lessons he learned and the path he repeatedly chose to walk many years before.
“I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” – Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela was born July 18, 1918 as Rolihlahla Mandela in the royal lineage of the Thembu dynasty. In a country dominated by white colonialism, he was extremely fortunate to become the first of his family to attend school. Since his name meant “troublemaker,” his teacher decided to call him “Nelson” in hopes that he wouldn’t live up to his name. Little did she know that in a few years he would become one of the greatest troublemakers in history; a man who would uncomfortably shift the racial ideologies of the ruling white minority.
While attending universities to earn his B.A. and law degrees, Mandela became politically active in the non-violent student movements, which later earned him an expulsion. During his years at university, he became friends with Oliver Tambo. Together they opened a law firm that provided free and low-cost legal aid to blacks who could not afford representation. With apartheid laws in effect, there were many injustices and human rights violations taking place. Mandela believed that change could happen through legal and political channels, so he joined the political party known as the African National Congress (ANC).
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” –Nelson Mandela
Mandela continued to study and practice the nonviolent resistance methods of Mahatma Gandhi until the ruling National Party began crushing all opposition. The National Party declared a “state of emergency” to rationalize the limitations on black travel, employment and protection. Mandela and 155 visionaries from his multi-racial political party were arrested on charges of high treason, and faced a 5 year trial. After 69 peaceful protesters were massacred during a huge protest in Sharpeville, Mandela decided militant action was required. He raised funds and coordinated sabotage campaigns against military and symbolic apartheid targets. Unfortunately, in their efforts to challenge the apartheid system, civilians became casualties of the war.
His use of violence would continue for two years until 1962 when he was arrested for traveling without a passport. A few years later he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island for his actions against the government. Right from the beginning, he began using non-violent methods to resist the prison guards. He also developed creative ways to keep the prisoners from feeling the psychological burdens of victimhood. While their bodies were exposed to pushing working conditions, Mandela made sure their minds were kept sharp. Each team of workers was assigned a member to instruct the others in history, economics, politics and philosophy. In addition, their recreation times were turned into educational and cultural sessions complete with signing and theater performances. Over the course of his 27 years in prison, Mandela became the most significant leader for Black South Africans.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” – Mandela
On February 10, 1990, after a series of secret talks, F.W. de Klerk, the newly appointed president granted Mandela his freedom. The following two years brought on a slew of violent massacres, assassinations, and strained negotiations. Though Mandela still considered violence as a possible method for resisting against apartheid, he chose to advocate for peaceful negotiations with de Klerk. Eventually they persevered and apartheid ended. Mandela, de Klerk and the other political parties worked together to develop a constitution for a democratic government without racial discrimination.
Four years later, the 75 year old Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. His term in office was spent transitioning his nation into a democracy and reconciling the racial tensions.
One of Mandela’s greatest characteristics is his determination to never give up. He voluntarily retired from his presidency after one term, but ever since then has been involved in a variety of social and humanitarian efforts.
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb…But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” – Mandela
Nelson Mandela has become a major voice against the AIDS epidemic that claims many lives in his country, including his son. He has also leveraged his international stature to bring awareness to solutions of global poverty. Mandela’s latest project is called The Elders. Begun in 2007, The Elders is a group of renowned and independent world leaders working publicly and behind the scenes to “…support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.”
We honor Nelson Mandela for all the work he has done in his lifetime. We are inspired by the patience, wisdom, and integrity with which Mandela led his nation in their pursuit of equality and freedom. He is a great moral hero and we all could learn much from his long road of sacrifice toward personal and national liberation.