What Nelson Mandela Means for Us

“He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.” President Obama could not have been more correct when speaking of the death of one of the greatest statesmen, human rights activists, and leaders to ever grace this planet. Although this quote is a terrible case of plagiarism (see Edwin Stanton’s famous quote upon the death of Lincoln), Nelson Mandela undoubtedly belongs to history and the ages. While we should remember him for what he stood and fought for, his legacy should best exemplify for all of us that sometimes it’s perfectly acceptable, and sometimes necessary, to rebel, act with civil disobedience, or fight for a moral cause.

Growing up as kids we’re taught to obey the rules, not to question our parents, listen obediently, and act in accordance with the law. But what if you grow up in South African apartheid? Nazi Germany? Soviet Russia? The Jim Crow south? Colonial America? Or any other human society where people have been unjustly oppressed, subjugated, or tyrannized? Now I’m not at all trying to advocate for children to act with civil disobedience against their parents (for they probably know better), but too often people are sheep that follow instructions or laws without thinking about their moral consequences, or whether they’re even just in the first place.

St. Augustine once said: “An unjust law is no law at all.” While we can save a discussion about justice and moral relativism for another day, the point of this quote is that we should always question. Is the law restricting or punishing people because their actions or inactions are inherently evil or morally reprehensible? Or is the law restricting or punishing people because society says their actions or inactions are bad? When it’s the latter, governments throughout history have had the tendency to persecute and oppress different classes of people for no just reasons whatsoever.

This type of oppression is what Nelson Mandela grew up in as a young boy in South Africa. But instead of obeying the law and doing what he was told, Mandela fought back against the shackles of South African apartheid. After trying to take a formal route by attending law school and helping to form a youth league in the African National Congress, Mandela grew frustrated with the old, quasi-obedient ways of operating. He opted for a more militant approach. This led him to drop out of law school and begin a life dedicated to civil disobedience. Although his actions were not always civil, he claims he was trying to persuade the government in the only language they seemed to understand – violence. His actions against government symbols and entities (i.e. post offices and buildings), his exit from the country to receive military training, and his other “treasonous” actions led to life imprisonment in 1964.

Mandela was willing to sacrifice everything to achieve equality in South Africa. On countless occasions he said he would die for the cause if he had to. Few leaders in history are inspired by such egalitarian motives. Gandhi and MLK are others who come to mind (two men who also became famous for practicing satyagraha or civil disobedience). It was this ambition and these motives that inspired Mandela to forgive, reconcile, and act magnanimously toward the South African regime that had oppressed him and the majority of the South African people. With a real threat of civil war hanging over South Africa, it was Mandela who encouraged everyone to embrace and unify with the oppressors for the benefit of all. The courage and magnanimity this must have taken is unthinkable. But without this approach, it’s frightening to think what the alternative could have been.

Mandela’s actions are a great illustration of injustice spurring disobedience. At the time, his disobedience and unlawful actions sent him to prison. His figurative shackles from apartheid transformed into literal chains of imprisonment as he was found guilty of conspiracy and treason. Many people agreed with his imprisonment at the time, as they did when MLK was thrown in the Birmingham City Jail. The United States government even had Mandela and some of the other members of the African National Congress on the terror watch list until 2008 for his militant actions against the South African government (thank God we finally reverted to the right side of history).

Although Mandela probably broke the law at the time, his moral compass remained true, his convictions steadfast, and his spirit unwavering. So today when we remember Mandela, let us remember the statesman, leader, and activist he was, but let us also be inspired never to shy away in the face of oppression. MLK once said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Mandela voraciously fought back against these threats his entire life, and so should we.


4 thoughts on “What Nelson Mandela Means for Us

  1. Mandela is the most overrated person in the last 200 years. He was a Communist. His claims to make things equal, were used to gain political control by blacks and himself over South Africa. What differences arose from his program of equality? Poverty did not improve. Crime increased tremendously. White people were afraid to stop their car at a stoplight in the bigger cities, because they would be held up at gunpoint. Tourism dropped, and the economy went flat, in what had been a very promising country.
    If this man had not been black we wouldn’t be hearing a word about him. Obama made his speech about a guy who had the same Marxist political views as himself. No surprise there. Enough of this guy already. The world has enough problems without honoring people who masquerade as real leaders when in fact they are not. This article must come from the Al Sharpton school of politics….and that school is a failure.


  2. What differences arose from his program of equality? Have you ever heard of apartheid? Mandela is revered and honored because he fought for this little thing called freedom, which most people would agree is a fundamental tenet of human civil society. He spent almost two decades in prison and almost died for the struggle.

    Mr. Anonymous, your citation of prosperity indicators is incomplete and misguided. White people were afraid to stop their cars at stoplights? Are you serious? The black inhabitants could not even afford cars. They were separated from the minority white population and forced to use inferior government services, including education and medical care. For any student of American jurisprudence who has read Plessy v. Ferguson, he or she knows that “separate, but equal” is inherently unequal. So instead of focusing on what happened in the transition years shortly after the policy of apartheid was ended (when tensions still ran tremendously high), why not celebrate the fact that everyone in South Africa was finally afforded the same rights, privileges, and opportunities as everyone else throughout their country. But rather than viewing freedom and equality as fundamental precepts to human civil society, you’d clearly prefer to concern yourself with tourism, the safety of white people, and how “promising” South Africa had been when it committed atrocious crimes against humanity.

    Ignorant comments like these are what perpetuate policies like apartheid in this world. Go ahead and label Mandela a Marxist or Communist. Criticize the post as a product of “Al Sharpton’s School of Politics.” Call Mandela overrated. Make as many oversimplified and uninformed comments as you’d like, but also try to challenge yourself to think of what your perspective might be if you grew up in a society that classified you as a second class citizen. Think of how your life might be different if another country decided to govern your community and treat you like dogs. Think about having to send your children to inferior schools, explaining to them that they can’t sit on the “whites only bench”, or that they have to go to the black hospital instead of the superior white one.

    Your opinions might change significantly. And you might come to understand that this is not an issue of black or white, or republican or democrat, but one of fundamental human rights. Mandela dedicated his life to ensuring all South Africans enjoyed the same fundamental rights that you and I are fortunate to have. There is nothing overrated about it.


    1. well Mr. jwpolo….explain to me why all the benefits of South African society came from the British who colonized it. They built the railroads. They brought decent health care. They also provided the jobs which some of the black majority worked in,…not all though cause most of them were too lazy to get jobs. Education improved for everyone, including the black majority who were willing to go to school. Most of them probably preferred to live off of welfare, which the British also provided. Seems to me Mr. JW Polo that the British transformed South Africa into a modern nation, only to see it dissolve away when Mandela and his Communist cronies took over. To honor someone who defied all the positive British accomplishments in South Africa..would be to give Christmas presents to Jehovah Witnesses….in other words a complete waste of time. Al the honor goes to the British who made South Africa a great country. Apartheid is an atavism of the past. Would we crucify the US for having black slave codes. We now have a black President….who wasn’t born in the US by the way. Seems to me that someone needs to look past the shadow of Mandela and see the bright lights of accomplishments by the British in South Africa. It’s time to make Rule Britannia the South African National Anthem….


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