In part, the power of an idea comes from the eloquence with which it expressed. Few managed it with the class of Nelson Mandela, from pithy observations such as “Where you stand depends on where you sit”, and “It always seems impossible until it’s done”, to the uplifting “There is no passion to be found playing small — in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living”.
Here are 20 things he said that are a guide to ensuring a life well lived.
From his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (1995):
- “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
- “No one is born hating another person because of the colour 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.”
- “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
- “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. … The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
- “Let it never be said by future generations that indifference, cynicism or selfishness made us fail to live up to the ideals of humanism which the Nobel Peace Prize encapsulates.” – Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1993.
- “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.” -Speech from the dock following his 1964 trial.
- “Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.” – Cape Town speech, 1990.
- “Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.” – Letter to Makhaya Ntini on his 100th cricket test, 2009.
- “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” – Address at Walter Sisulu’s 90th birthday celebrations, 2002.
- “If I had my time over I would do the same again. So would any man who dares call himself a man.” – Speech in mitigation after being convicted of inciting strikes and leaving the country illegally, 1962.
- “Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.” – Letter to Winnie Mandela, 1975.
- “I like friends who have independent minds because they tend to make you see problems from all angles.” – From his unpublished autobiographical manuscript, 1975.
- “Those who conduct themselves with morality, integrity and consistency need not fear the forces of inhumanity and cruelty.” – British Red Cross Humanity Lecture, 2003.
- “When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?” – Speaking about AIDS, 46664 concert, Norway, 2005.
- “A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.” – Soweto address, 2008.
- “The values of human solidarity that once drove our quest for a humane society seem to have been replaced, or are being threatened, by a crass materialism and pursuit of social goals of instant gratification. One of the challenges of our time, without being pietistic or moralistic, is to re-instil in the consciousness of our people that sense of human solidarity, of being in the world for one another and because of and through others.” – 5th Steve Biko lecture, 2004.
- “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.” – Address Make Poverty History campaign, 2005.
- “You sharpen your ideas by reducing yourself to the level of the people you are with, and a sense of humour and a complete relaxation, even when you’re discussing serious things, does help to mobilise friends around you. And I love that.” – Interview for Mandela: The Authorised Portrait, 2006.
- “Mr Fraser, is Donald Bradman still alive?” – To former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, when visited by him in Pollsmoor jail, 1986. (Later, Mr Fraser presented him with a signed bat from The Don, inscribed: “To Nelson Mandela, in recognition of a great unfinished innings.”)
- “Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace.” – Mandela documentary interview, 1994
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