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Nelson Mandela's Been A Troublemaker Since Birth

The Profile of a Troublemaker

He became one of the country's first black lawyers; quit his day job at his new law firm; was sentenced to life in prison for treason and conspiracy; became the first democratically elected president of his country; won the Nobel Peace Prize (and 250 other awards); remained on the US terror watch list until he was 89; and is loved and admired by the world over. Nelson Mandela's birth name was Rolihlahla, which in his Xhosa tribe, means “troublemaker”.

Mandela International Day

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) touched lives everywhere he went. He dedicated his life to fighting for human rights, and he believed that everyone has the potential to make a difference in their communities, and to make the world to be a better place. In November 2009, the UN General Assembly declared July 18 "Nelson Mandela International Day" in recognition of his values, dedication to conflict resolution, fight for racial inequalities, struggle for democracy, and protection of human rights.

Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president in South African history in 1994, and his election was illustrated a new birth of freedom around the world. Mandela himself was a global icon not only of democracy but pluralism, and his triumph seemed to spell the end of an era of authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism.

Peace and Pluralism in a Global Pandemic

We are in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic, and democracy and pluralism are under attack in every region on earth. Ethnic nationalism is ascendant in countries around the world, and authoritarian leaders and autocratic regimes are undermining the ability of people to vote, eroding the independence of judiciaries, muting the freedom of speech and of the press.

According to the non-profit Freedom House, we are in the 14th straight year of a global decline in freedom. In America, not only are we suffering from the pandemic, but there is a powerful national movement against racial and cultural inequities, while we have an administration who is closer in spirit to the racist apartheid leaders whom we thought Mandela had consigned to the dustbin of history.

On Mandela International Day 2020, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: "Even before the (coronavirus) pandemic, inequality was a global plague. Today, this injustice is clear to all."

What We Can Learn from Mandela

Mandela never took the path of least resistance. He did not embrace the consoling view of history that, as Martin Luther King said (in a line often quoted by Barack Obama), “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” For him, positive change was never inevitable. If the world was going to bend toward justice, he would have to do the bending himself.

"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." -Nelson Mandela

Mandela was motivated by more. Mandela studied law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, became one of South Africa’s first black lawyers, and opened the nation's first Black law firm in the city in 1952. That in itself was a remarkable feat, and to most, it would have been achievement enough. But Mandela was not motivated by - nor satisfied with - his own success; he was driven by a life of significance, that is, using his gifts in the service of others.

"What counts 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.” -Mandela

Mandela was not blinded by hype. Mandela did not view America as a shining city on a hill. In fact, Ronald Reagan, the president who first used that phrase, regarded Mandela as a terrorist, and his administration supported the South African apartheid regime during the Cold War. Mandela was only officially removed from U.S. terrorist watch lists in 2008. In his unpublished prison journal, written in the 1970s while he was on Robben Island, Mandela said that while he had American friends and supporters, “I hate all forms of imperialism and consider the U.S. brand the most loathsome and contemptible.”

"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

Mandela was focused on the problem. For him, freedom and democracy were the single highest undeviating goal that justified the use of nearly any means to get there. In Atlanta, he was greeted by a small crowd of protesting white supremacists and former members of the Ku Klux Klan. In his speech in Atlanta, he ended by saying, “Let freedom ring wherever the peoples’ rights are trampled upon.”

“Let freedom ring wherever the peoples’ rights are trampled upon.” - Nelson Mandela

Mandela created solutions. In 1995, President Mandela created the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was a public commission to look at the roots of apartheid and racial injustice, and create the space for people to come forward and confess their crimes and receive amnesty. Many white policemen and security officials did so. The Commission electrified South Africa and became a vehicle for transcending the country’s deep divides. For Mandela, it confirmed his belief that forgiveness helps both the forgiven and the forgiver. It was powerful to see the relatives of men and women who were murdered by the old apartheid government forgive their former oppressors.

"Our experience has taught us that with goodwill, a negotiated solution can be found for even the most profound problems." -Nelson Mandela

Mandela created solutions that could scale. ("Scale" is an entrepreneurial concept that refers to growth with minimal friction.) A handful of American cities like Greensboro, N.C. have had local truth and reconciliation commissions, and now Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco are planning similar ones. A number of legislators, including Congresswoman Barbara Lee, California, have called for a national TRC to look at the history of slavery and discrimination. The South African example is a powerful precedent for America. A national Truth and Reconciliation Commission coupled with a serious look at the idea of reparations is a way to seek closure on a dreadful aspect of our history. As Mandela used to say, it’s never too late to do the right thing.

"May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears." -Nelson Mandela

Mandela built bridges. So many people over the years have remarked how extraordinary it was that Mandela could forgive his own oppressors. But Mandela has made known how deeply wounded he was by his own past and his suffering. But he also understood that as a leader and symbol, he must always project forgiveness, and he never ever failed to do so. He understood that, while it was impossible to truly forget the past, we must relinquish its hold over us.

Now It's Your Turn

Celebrate Nelson Mandela Day by making a difference in your communities. Everyone has the ability and the responsibility to change the world for the better! Mandela Day is an occasion for all to take action and inspire change. Today we should all ask ourselves: What have I done to improve the surroundings in which I live? It is in your hands to make the world a better place.

"It is easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build." -Nelson Mandela

20 Nelson Mandela Quotes for 2020

  1. “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.” 

  2. “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” 

  3. "What counts 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.”

  4. "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

  5. "Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.”

  6. “Sometimes, it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation."

  7. “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.”

  8.  “Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.”

  9. “Action without vision is only passing time, vision without action is merely day dreaming, but vision with action can change the world.” 

  10. "You can start changing our world for the better daily, no matter how small the action."

  11. “It is what we have given, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.” 

  12. "A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.”

  13. “There can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to helping others without expecting anything in return.” 

  14. "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."

  15. "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner."

  16. "A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

  17. "As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same."

  18.  “We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference.”

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

  20. "It always seems impossible until it’s done."


Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. "Biography." Nelson Mandela Foundation. Accessed April 22, 2014.


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