Nelson Mandela passed away five years ago today. He was 95, and left behind an extraordinary legacy that won’t soon be forgotten. Here are 7 life lessons we learned from him that the world desperately needs right now.
On December 5th, 2013, the world lost a truly exceptional man. More than a politician, Nelson Mandela was for many a universal leader, the ultimate role model, and a beacon of morality. He left behind a beautiful legacy that will remain with us—and in the pages of history—for decades, if not centuries, to come. That’s a great thing.
We live in a world ripped apart by opposing ideologies and ways of thinking. There are terrible strains, social and political, between many groups and countries, and we can feel the tension steadily increasing. So, now more than ever, we need to look back at our gravest mistakes as much as at that which made us great. In this, Nelson Mandela has a lot to teach us. Without further ado, here are 7 life lessons we learned from him that are extremely relevant right now.
Violence is not necessary to achieve social justice.
One of Mandela’s leading policies throughout his life was pacifism and non-violence. He constantly applied the principles of peaceful resistance, previously used with great success by Gandhi. And while there was a time when he did engage in militant strategies to sabotage the government following the Shaperville Massacre, his greatest results and success came after he was released from prison, whereby he peacefully suppressed apartheid and became his nation’s leader.
Unity and reconciliation is a legitimate path towards a fair society.
When faced with racism against black people, he didn’t answer with racial discrimination towards white people. Instead, he insisted on unity, and strongly promoted racial reconciliation. We mustn’t believe for a second that the best or only true path to justice is through the utter destruction of the opposing side. We should not fight fire with fire. In the end, Mandela’s policies of mutual cooperation led to the outcomes which turned him into the figure we so admire today. He was successful without taking an eye for an eye and without alienating his opponents. Many of us can learn from his strategies.
Let go of your ego and focus on the bigger picture.
Mandela certainly had cause to resent his oppressors. He had cause to hate them. To fight them. To wish them the worst. But when he was released from prison in 1990, even after unjustly spending 27 years behind bars, Mandela’s immediate goal was to work with then-president F. W. de Klerk in order to negotiate an end to apartheid. He did not wage war or lead a campaign of revenge. He didn’t center the issue around himself and his woes. He simply got to work for the benefit of all South Africans, regardless of race. And it worked. He became South Africa’s first black president shortly after, the first one elected in a truly democratic, free, and multiracial election.
Befriending your enemy can often lead to the best results.
Mandela’s policy of reconciliation allowed him to effectively end apartheid in his country. It’s all about finding common ground. Whenever we face a foe, we must always keep in mind they too have good qualities. The idea is to focus on those things, to discover the good parts, and to appeal to their best side. It’s more effective to elicit a change through cooperation than through conflict, and in order to get others to cooperate, you need to figure out a way to make them sympathize with your cause. Attacking them is not the answer, for they will fight back. Just focus on that one area where you might agree (now or eventually), and find a way to work together, even if it’s on something mundane. This will create bonds and construct bridges, which can eventually lead to great things, as Mandela sharply showed us.
Learn how and when to compromise.
But that doesn’t mean we should abandon our principles just so we can cater to our enemies. On the contrary. We should hold fast to what we believe in while peacefully bringing others over to our camp. This means we must learn the difficult art of compromise: to be able to distinguish which battles to fight and which to let go in order to achieve a greater good. It’s not always ideal, but it is a key ingredient for social progress.
Don’t be stubborn.
If one strategy doesn’t work, try another one. Mandela gave up his short-lived militant path when he realized the best path was pacifism and kindness after all. There’s no shame in admitting we were wrong and correcting our mistakes: that’s a sign of intelligence, maturity, and actual commitment to our purpose. Many of the greatest minds in history have admitted they were wrong at one time or another. Mandela is among them.
Don’t give up.
It sounds cliché, I know. But there’s a good reason why this message is so often repeated. All the greatest stories—those that inspire us the most—feature its essence at their core. And Nelson Mandela’s tale is no different. Though we all stand and fall on the battlefield of life, those who persist stand the stronger. It’s people who keep going in spite of overwhelming odds, who power through in the face of defeat and manage to reach the greatest heights. It’s them whose stories we hear about. It’s them whose fortitude we admire. It’s them who become our role models.
Labeled as a communist terrorist by the right, and criticized by the far left for his eagerness to reconcile and work together with his opponents, Mandela was a polarizing figure throughout his lifetime. But his activism and legacy have ultimately been almost universally praised, as his accomplishments, in spite of the skepticism of those who denounced his tactics, reached inspiring and undeniably successful heights.
You might also like these articles: