Nelson Mandela spent 27 years behind bars for fighting against apartheid in South Africa. Four years after his release and the end of apartheid, he became the president of South Africa and the personification of rising above adversity. His quotes continue to inspire leaders around the world, and his legacy endures long after his lifetime.
From freedom fighter to prisoner to president, the road of Nelson Mandela’s life was constantly changing. What never changed was his dedication to racial equality and the pursuit of justice, which Mandela believed would benefit South Africans of all races.
“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.” - Long Walk to Freedom
“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.” - “I Am Prepared to Die” speech, 1964
“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” - Speech at Trafalgar Square, London, 2005
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” - Speech at Madison Park High School, 1990
An inspirational part of Nelson Mandela’s journey is his devotion to his country and his people. Despite persecution and incarceration, Mandela managed to thrive on the most essential elements of life and leadership.
“A leader … is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” - Long Walk to Freedom
“I have walked the 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. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.” - Long Walk to Freedom
“There is a streak of goodness in men that can be buried or hidden and then emerge unexpectedly.” - Long Walk to Freedom
“Nothing is more dehumanizing than the absence of human companionship.” - Long Walk to Freedom
“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. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for eternity.” - Mandela documentary
“Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.” - Letter to Makhaya Ntini, 2009
Mandela could not have endured nearly three decades in prison without hope for the future. He used his extended solitude to reflect on the importance of hope above all else, as well as one’s ability to grow and change.
“One of the things I learnt when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself I could not change others.” - Sunday Times, 2000
“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 and win in the end." - The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela
“The man who says: I will conquer this illness and live a happy life, is already halfway through to victory. … Remember that hope is a powerful weapon even when all else is lost.” - The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela
“It is in the character of growth that we should learn from both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.” - Foreign Correspondents’ Association’s Annual Dinner, 1997
“Those who conduct themselves with morality, integrity and consistency need not fear the forces of inhumanity and cruelty.” - British Red Cross Humanity Lecture, 2003
Nelson Mandela’s words are not confined to history. His message is an inspiration to civil rights activists and future leaders everywhere: Freedom is worth the sacrifice. For more stirring quotes by famous activists, check out: