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Last Updated on January 9, 2023

Nelson Mandela is one of the most inspirational political figures, known for supporting racial reconciliation in his country. Despite his passing on December 5, 2013, his legacy as an anti-apartheid leader and philanthropist lives on. He served as the President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 as the country’s first black head of state. In his later years, he also fought against poverty and HIV/AIDS. His efforts and activism gained him recognition worldwide, and he was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Early Life


Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918. He was a member of the Madiba clan in the Eastern Cape. At 12 years of age, his father died, and Rolihlahla became a ward of Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting King of the Thembu people.

His primary school teacher gave him the name “Nelson” as it was customary to be given Christian names. He studied at the Wesleyan Secondary School, and studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University College of Fort Hare. However, he was expelled from the college after participating in one student protest.

He returned to his village, but a disappointed Jongintaba threatened that he would arrange wives for Nelson and his cousin Justice if he did not return to Fort Hare. Instead, the two escaped to Johannesburg and arrived in 1941. Nelson worked first as a mine security officer, then completed his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of South Africa. He returned to Fort Hare to graduate in 1943.

He started studying for a law degree in 1952 at the University of Witwatersrand, where he was the only black African student in his class. He left the university due to poor grades, and was only able to obtain his law degree from the University of South Africa in 1989.

He married Evelyn Mase, a nurse, in 1944. They had two sons and two daughters, one of which died in infancy. He and his wife divorced in 1958.

Activism and Politics


Nelson became politically involved in 1942, and joined the African National Congress in 1944. There, he was instrumental in forming the ANC Youth League. Through Nelson’s efforts, the ANC adopted a radical mass-based policy called the Programme of Action in 1949.

In 1952, the South African Indian Congress and the ANC created a joint programme of civil disobedience against six unjust laws. Nelson was charged with nine months of labor along with 19 others for their participation, while suspended for two years.

Nelson obtained a two-year diploma, which, coupled with his BA, allowed him to practice law without a degree. He and Oliver Tambo then created Mandela & Tambo, the first black law firm in South Africa.

On March 21, 1960, a total of 69 unarmed protesters against pass laws were killed in Sharpeville. A state of emergency was declared, with Mandela as one of the thousands detained. He married social worker Winnie Madikizela during his trial, but they divorced in 1996.

In 1961, he was convinced that an armed struggle was inevitable, and helped establish the “Spear of the Nation.” He secretly travelled to England to gain support, and received military training in Morocco and Ethiopia. He was arrested and imprisoned on his return to South Africa.

While facing death penalty, he delivered his famous “Speech from the Dock” on April 20, 1964, where he declared his willingness to die fighting for equality and freedom. The next day, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Release from Prison and Ascent to Presidency


After rejecting three conditional release offers, Mandela was only released on February 11, 1990, after he negotiated the end of apartheid in South Africa, bringing peace to the racially divided country.

In 1991, he and President Frederik Willem de Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize for agreeing on a transition to majority rule. On May 10, 1994, he became South Africa’s first black President in a fully democratic election. He married his third wife, Graça Machel in 1998. He stepped down after one term in 1999.



Nelson Mandela is a leading figure in the fight against apartheid, and became Africa’s greatest symbol of freedom and equality. He devoted his life to his principles and spent 27 years in prison fighting for civil rights. He did not fight racism with racism despite the oppression he received, instead choosing to promote democracy, equality, and education.

After his presidency, he continued his work through the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the Nelson Mandela Foundation to fight against poverty and HIV/AIDS. He fought against the stigma of discussing the disease by publicizing the cause of his son’s death as HIV/AIDS.

Truly, Nelson Mandela’s legacy about equality and freedom resonates even to this day. Here are some of his quotes that are sure to inspire you.

Nelson Mandela Quotes

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela

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“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” – Nelson Mandela

“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.” – Nelson Mandela

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” – Nelson Mandela

“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” – Nelson Mandela

“A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.” – Nelson Mandela

“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.” – Nelson Mandela

“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.” – Nelson Mandela

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. 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.” – Nelson Mandela

“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” – Nelson Mandela

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

“Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.” – Nelson Mandela

“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.” – Nelson Mandela

“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. 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 ended.” – Nelson Mandela

“I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” – Nelson Mandela

“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.” – Nelson Mandela

“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.” – Nelson Mandela

“As I have said, the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself. ” – Nelson Mandela

“Where you stand depends on where you sit.” – Nelson Mandela

“I am the captain of my soul.” – Nelson Mandela

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” – Nelson Mandela

“One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others.” – Nelson Mandela

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” – Nelson Mandela

“Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.” – Nelson Mandela

“A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind.” – Nelson Mandela

“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. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.” – Nelson Mandela

“Appearances matter — and remember to smile.” – Nelson Mandela

“We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” – Nelson Mandela

“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” – Nelson Mandela

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

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. 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.” – Nelson Mandela

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“In my country we go to prison first and then become President.” – Nelson Mandela

“Nothing is black or white.” – Nelson Mandela

“Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.” – Nelson Mandela

“You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution.” – Nelson Mandela

“One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen.” – Nelson Mandela

“Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.” – Nelson Mandela

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” – Nelson Mandela

“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.” – Nelson Mandela

“Know your enemy — and learn about his favorite sport.” – Nelson Mandela

“Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, you can be that generation.” – Nelson Mandela

“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.” – Nelson Mandela

“Quitting is leading too.” – Nelson Mandela

“Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfil themselves.” – Nelson Mandela

“A Nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones.” – Nelson Mandela

“When the water starts boiling it is foolish to turn off the heat.” – Nelson Mandela

“It is not where you start but how high you aim that matters for success.” – Nelson Mandela

“Keep your friends close — and your rivals even closer.” – Nelson Mandela

“I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.” – Nelson Mandela

“We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” – Nelson Mandela

“The brave man is not the one who has no fears, he is the one who triumphs over his fears.” – Nelson Mandela

“Your playing small does not serve the world. Who are you not to be great?” – Nelson Mandela

“It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.” – Nelson Mandela

“Tread softly, Breathe peacefully, Laugh hysterically.” – Nelson Mandela

“Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their songs.” – Nelson Mandela

“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” – Nelson Mandela

“I have never cared very much for personal prizes. A person does not become a freedom fighter in the hope of winning awards.” – Nelson Mandela

“Lead from the front — but don’t leave your base behind.” – Nelson Mandela

“I am not an optimist, but a great believer of hope.” – Nelson Mandela

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” – Nelson Mandela

“And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Nelson Mandela

“We owe our children – the most vulnerable citizens in any society – a life free from violence and fear.” – Nelson Mandela

“A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.” – Nelson Mandela

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice.” – Nelson Mandela

“There is a universal respect and even admiration for those who are humble and simple by nature, and who have absolute confidence in all human beings irrespective of their social status.” – Nelson Mandela

“I love playing and chatting with children…feeding and putting them to bed with a little story, and being away from the family has troubled me throughout my…life. I like relaxing at the house, reading quietly, taking in the sweet smell that comes from the pots, sitting around a table with the family and taking out my wife and children. when you can no longer enjoy these simple pleasures something valuable is taken away from your life and you feel it in your daily work.” – Nelson Mandela

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“Peace is the greatest weapon for development that any person can have.” – Nelson Mandela

“No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.” – Nelson Mandela

“Only free men can negotiate, prisoners can’t enter into contracts.” – Nelson Mandela

“Live life as though nobody is watching, and express yourself as though everyone is listening.” – Nelson Mandela

“I could not imagine that the future I was walking toward could compare in any way to the past that I was leaving behind.” – Nelson Mandela

“Your playing small does not serve the world.” – Nelson Mandela

“Once a person is determined to help themselves, there is nothing that can stop them.” – Nelson Mandela

“There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.” – Nelson Mandela

“The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

“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… Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never explained.” – Nelson Mandela

“There are few misfortunes in this world that you cannot turn into a personal triumph if you have the iron will and the necessary skill.” – Nelson Mandela

“Money wont create success, the freedom to make it will.” – Nelson Mandela

“Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place.” – Nelson Mandela

“He knew when to compromise. Yet he never compromised his principles. He was a militant. Yet a militant who knew how to plan, assess concrete situations and emerge with rational solutions to problems.” – Nelson Mandela

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” – Nelson Mandela

“For a revolution is not just a question of pulling a trigger; its purpose is to create a fair just society.” – Nelson Mandela

“Success in politics demands that you must take your people into confidence about your views and state them very clearly, very politely, very calmly, but nevertheless, state them openly.” – Nelson Mandela

“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.” – Nelson Mandela

“I shall stick to our vow: never, never under any circumstances, to say anything unbecoming of the other…The trouble, of course, is that most successful men are prone to some form of vanity. There comes a stage in their lives when they consider it permissible to be egotistic and to brag to the public at large about their unique achievements.” – Nelson Mandela

“It is most unusual to return to a place that has changed in ways you yourself have altered.” – Nelson Mandela

“We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” – Nelson Mandela

“Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great.” – Nelson Mandela

“Having resentment against someone is like drinking poison and thinking it will kill your enemy.” – Nelson Mandela

“After climbing a great hill I realised that there are many more hills to climb.” – Nelson Mandela

“There is no such thing as part freedom.” – Nelson Mandela

“In some ways, it is easier to be a dissident, for then one is without responsibility.” – Nelson Mandela

“A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle,and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor.At a point, one can only fight fire with fire.” – Nelson Mandela

“Although Verwoerd thought Africans were lower than animals, his death did not yield us any pleasure. Political assassination is not something I or the ANC ever supported. It is a primitive way of contending with an opponent.” – Nelson Mandela

“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.” – Nelson Mandela

“Few things make the life of a parent more rewarding and sweet as successful children.” – Nelson Mandela