From his early days as a foot soldier in the struggle for racial equality to his years as an elder statesman in South Africa, Nelson Mandela spoke many truths that still ring true today. The world was expected to pause on Wednesday to celebrate Mandela, known fondly by his clan’s name Madiba, on what would have been his 100th birthday.
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Born in the South African state of Transkei, Mandela became the global symbol of human rights through his sacrifice and leadership against his country’s system of racial segregation and injustice, known as apartheid.
The world first took note of Mandela with his statement from the dock at the supreme court of South Africa in 1964, when he faced the death penalty. Mandela and other members of the African National Congress, a Black South African political party that fought for racial equality, were on trial for acts of sabotage against the white apartheid government. Mandela delivered his famous speech to the court, which ultimately sentenced him to life in prison. Mandela served most of that sentence in isolation at Robben Island Prison.
“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,” a defiant Mandela said at the time. “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.”
He was released from his life sentence in 1990, as the government faced increasing global pressure from governments and human rights activists who called on South Africa’s white government to end apartheid and free its most famous prisoner, Mandela.
The 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner was democratically elected South Africa’s first Black president in 1994, as well as the country’s first post-apartheid president. Scores of Black South Africans, allowed to vote for the first time, swept Mandela into office.
Mandela died in 2013, but his words continue to inspire us:
Racism (from his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom)
“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.”
Leadership (from his 2001 interview with Oprah)
“A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.”
Poverty (from the 2005 Make Poverty History rally in London)
“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”
Gender Equality (from his 1995 speech on South Africa’s first National Women’s Day)
“At the September (1995) Beijing Conference of the United Nations women of the world will gather to chart a path for humanity towards bringing an end to the evil that continues to plague even the most powerful of nations – and that is discrimination on the grounds of sex.
Education (from his 1990 speech in Boston)
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
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