Why I Admire Mandela

“Goodness, armed with power, is corrupted; and pure love without power is destroyed.”

Reinhold Niebuhr

Mandela was not a passivist. In 1955 Nelson Mandela reversed his position on non-violent protest and concluded that violent action would be necessary to end apartheid and white minority rule. This lead him to found Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC and to lead the armed resistance. He was ultimately arrested in 1962 and convicted and jailed in 1964. Some people criticize him for embracing the armed struggle, but it was a realistic response to a situation where the white minority government used the power of the state to maintain their entrenched interests.

“The path of those who preach love, and not hatred, is not easy. They often have to wear a crown of thorns.”

Nelson Mandela

Mandela was a man of high ideals and strong convictions. From his Rivonia Trial Speech in 1964: “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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realized. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

“Revenge is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Nelson Mandela

Yet the reason I admire Mandela is forgiveness. He forgave his oppressors. He forgave his captors. Its one thing to declare your commitment to a democratic and free society, its quite another to emerge after 27 years in jail without bitterness or hatred, and from a position of power embrace reconciliation and nation building. This is why Mandela is my hero.

“A too simple social radicalism does not recognize how quickly the poor, the weak, the despised of yesterday, may, on gaining a social victory over their detractors, exhibit the same arrogance and the same will-to-power which they abhorred in their opponents and which they were inclined to regard as a congenital sin of their enemies.”

Reinhold Niebuhr

Mandela’s social radicalism won the day but he restrained the will-to-power of his newly enfranchised African National Congress (ANC). Instead of retribution for centuries of injustice, Mandela convened the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as the cornerstone of a national reconciliation process. He embraced a personal and visible outreach to white South Africans epitomized by his support for the national rugby team at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Traditionally the white mans sport, the Springbok was for many the symbol of apartheid. Through his moral leadership, South Africa transitioned from apartheid to democracy peacefully. Even the most committed atheist happily embraced the South African miracle.

“Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”

Reinhold Niebuhr

I don’t hold Mandela to be a paragon of virtue. His personal life reflects infidelity and divorce, and by his own admission he was an absent father. But his ability to forgive and put aside his pride is remarkable, historically impactful, and represents the best of what a human can be. The last word goes to Oprah: “I think in the world of heros, living heroes, he is number one for me. His ability to withstand years of apartheid and 27 years in prison and to come out of it with grace and forgiveness. It is the greatest lesson of our time.”

“Forgiveness is the final form of love.”

Reinhold Niebuhr


Or instead of suffering through my writing, you could take it from Trevor.




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