Nelson Mandela Quotes That Will Help You Understand His Legacy

On his really long walk to freedom, this social leader inspired millions, not only in South Africa but also the entire world. These Nelson Mandela quotes will help you understand his legacy.

Apart from life, a strong constitution, and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlahla. In Xhosa, Rolihlahla literally means “pulling the branch of a tree,” but its colloquial meaning more accurately would be “troublemaker.”

These are the words with which Nelson Mandela opened his highly popular autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (1994). If you think about it, there’s no better way to comprise a long life of struggle and resilience than by uniting both his origins and the personality trait that would take him on his endless fight. Troublemaker: that’s what many thought he was, but also what always moved him to make a change and fight for what he believed to be justice. This year, we’re celebrating that one of the most important characters in modern history, and one that made a huge change in his native South Africa (and the world as well) was born a hundred years ago. So, if you want to know more about this key figure in history, take a look at some of his most important and compelling quotes.

“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.” 

As he mentions in his opening lines, he was born into the royal family of the Xhosa people in Umtata, then part of South Africa’s Cape Province (after Apartheid, it was divided into Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, and Western Cape). As a child, his mother sent him to be raised under the tutelage of the Thembu regent, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo. He raised Mandela the same way he treated his own son Justice and his daughter Nomafu and gave him a formal education. His favorite subjects were English, history, and geography.  

At the age of 18, he enrolled at the University of Fort Hare to get his BA. However, one year later, he decided to join a group organizing a boycott against the institution due to the quality of the food they were given; he was suspended and never went back. Four years later, in 1940, Justice and Mandela returned to their village in Mqhekezweni only to find that the chief had arranged for them to marry two girls. Both decided to flee the village and move to Johannesburg, where they thought they would find better life opportunities, rather than follow a path someone else had chosen for them. He started working at a law firm run by Lazar Sidelsky, a liberal Jewish man who supported the African National Congress’ (ANC) independence movement. This got him acquainted with people involved in other movements fighting the government and showed him the reality of his country.

“When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.” 

Then, he decided to go back to school and enrolled at the University of South Africa, where he finished his BA in 1943. He wanted to pursue a political career as a lawyer rather than a councilor, as he had planned all his life. Later, he decided to enroll at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he was the only black student. This pushed him to become more active at ANC meetings to the point that in 1944 he joined a group of young people to form the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), where he became a member of the president’s executive committee.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” 

In the 1948 general elections, in which only white people were allowed to vote, the new National Party candidate Franiel François Malan was elected president. One of his main policies was the establishment of a new legislation based on racial segregation. This would later become known as Apartheid. As a very active and influential member of the ANC, Mandela and his party started planning direct actions to stop Apartheid, including protests, boycotts, and strikes. The situation called for radical measures, and for the first time, Mandela was willing to leave his negotiating nature to join the revolution.

“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.” 

In 1952, as president of the ANCYL and executive member of the ANC, Mandela set up the first black law firm in the country along with his friend Oliver Tambo. They started campaigning all over the country against the Apartheid legislation, gathering more and more support from all those who were affected by this segregation policy. At one of the rallies, the Nationalist government decided to tackle the growing movement by imprisoning its leaders. However, the court determined that since the movement was nonviolent they could only sanction them by banning them from any political gathering.

“There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

Naturally, Mandela didn’t take that time to rest from his fight, and during his six-month ban, he started working on what he called the “M-Plan.” The idea was to divide the ANC into different branches to keep the contact with the black community and continue shaping the movement. The government got wind of their “illegal” moves, and in 1956, Mandela, Tambo, and 153 other members of the movement were charged with treason. The trial lasted four years and determined, once again, that the ANC wasn’t promoting violence, so they couldn’t sentence any of them.

“Difficulties break some men but make others. No ax 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.”

Forced to lay low, Mandela continued traveling around the country and promoting the ANC’s ideas, which included a massive peaceful strike. However, the authorities found out and put out a warrant for his immediate arrest. While he was hiding from the police, he would have secret meetings with reporters, and when the government failed to stop the strike, Mandela sent a message warning them of other anti-Apartheid movements that were willing to use violence to stop the policies. In 1962, Mandela decided to travel to other African countries to garner support for the movement. After very productive meetings with African leaders, he returned in August, only to be arrested for leaving the country illegally.

“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.” 

Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. He remained on Robben Island for 18 years until 1982, when he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison. During his very long imprisonment, he continued working on his movement to the point that even in jail he was considered the most influential black leader in South Africa. The slogan “Free Mandela” kept growing in popularity and became a whole movement protesting Apartheid. Then, in 1990, Mandela was released and the ANC's permanent ban finally ended. It was time to really make a change.

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” 

After his release, he started working on plans to negotiate with the government. He toured the world to get more support for his movement. He assured the South African population that his movement was still aiming for a non-violent transition focusing on reconciliation within the South African population. Finally, in 1994, a general election took place, and the ANC took 63% of the votes, making him the first black president of South Africa, and marking the end of Apartheid.

“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. [...] with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

Mandela was president of South Africa for only five years. However, during his time in office, he promoted a brand new constitution that aimed to give rights to the majority-black population, which had been oppressed for centuries. Presidents could run for a second term, but Mandela never sought reelection. He continued with his activism and philanthropic activities until his death on December 5th, 2013.


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