Notable Nelson Mandela Quotes!

142 Nelson Mandela quotes and quotations—from a man who won his wisdom through long and hard experience.

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Nelson Mandela (born 1918) freedom fighter

Rolihlahla Mandela was born in a South African village in 1918. Rolihlahla means "to pull a branch of a tree," or "troublemaker." His name would prove to be prophetic!

He got the name Nelson from the local mission school he attended—the first member of his family to go to school. When Nelson was just nine, his father died of tuberculosis.

While studying law in Johannesburg, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943. He became actively engaged politically after the 1948 election victory of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party, which supported the apartheid policy of racial segregation.

Mandela led prominent ANC campaigns, and with fellow black lawyer Oliver Tambo also operated a law firm that provided free or low-cost legal counsel to many blacks, who would otherwise not have had access to legal representation.

Mandela was initially committed to total nonviolent resistance to apartheid, but years of increasing state repression and violence, and brutality and atrocities committed by individual whites on blacks, convinced him to move to armed struggle. He chose sabotage of military and government buildings, which didn’t involve the loss of life and offered hope for future race relations.

Mandela became a wanted man. He avoided arrest for 17 months by living on the run and adopting different disguises. Dressed as a labourer, or as a chauffeur, his evasion of the police earned him the title of the Black Pimpernel.

But they caught him in 1962. Initially he received a five-year prison sentence, but a further trial in 1964 on charges that included involvement in planning armed action sent him to prison for life.

Prison life

While in jail—initially on the infamous Robben Island, where he did hard labour in a lime quarry—Mandela’s reputation grew. He became widely known as the most significant black leader in South Africa.

Prison conditions were harsh, with prisoners segregated by race. Black prisoners received the fewest rations. Political prisoners were kept separate from ordinary criminals, and received fewer privileges. As a D-group prisoner (the lowest classification) Mandela was allowed one visitor and one letter every six months. Letters were often delayed for long periods and made unreadable by the prison censors.

Mandela embarked on study with the University of London by correspondence, and received his Bachelor of Laws degree.

In 1969, a secret agent from South African Intelligence infiltrated a plan to rescue Mandela from prison. They wanted Mandela to escape, so they could shoot him during his recapture. But British Intelligence foiled the plot.

From political prisoner to president

Throughout Mandela's imprisonment, local and international pressure mounted on the South African government to release him. In 1990, State President F.W. de Klerk reversed the ban on the ANC and other anti-apartheid organizations.

Finally, after almost 27 years, Mandela walked out of prison a free and wiser 71-year-old man on 11 February 1990. His release was broadcast live across the world.

Mandela plunged into attaining the goals planned almost four decades earlier—and into preventing a retaliatory bloodbath. In 1993 (along with F.W. de Klerk) he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of all South Africans who had suffered and sacrificed so much to bring peace to their country.

Apartheid ended on April 27, 1994, when Nelson Mandela and his people voted for the first time in their life. He became the first black president of a democratic South Africa on May 10, 1994, serving for one five-year term.

During his presidency, Mandela donated a third of his salary to The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, one of the three charitable foundations he has set up. Although age has forced him to cut back on the relentless schedule he used to maintain, he continues to speak out for the causes of human rights and social justice.

So now you can see why Nelson Mandela quotes carry the weight of wisdom!


Nelson Mandela quotes on AIDS

- We must fight the scourge of AIDS by breaking the silence that encourages its quiet devastation.

- We must fight the fear and prejudice that can only worsen the suffering of those who live with AIDS.

- We live in a world where the AIDS pandemic threatens the very fabric of our lives. Yet we spend more money on weapons than on ensuring treatment and support for the millions infected by HIV.

Nelson Mandela quotes on apartheid

- Apartheid fell because people around the world stood up and opposed it together.

- Through centuries of oppression, the formal education that our people received never included their own history.

- By dividing our country and making us strangers to each other, apartheid took away the freedom of all, oppressed and oppressor alike.

- We were in the grip of a system that divided us one from the other; a system that set a few above the majority by virtue of skin colour alone.

- To perpetuate itself, a system that claimed to be ordained from on high could be sustained only by brute force, robbing us all of our humanity—oppressed and oppressor alike.

- In South Africa there were no longer many children who could laugh and play innocently. Apartheid had left millions without schooling, decent housing, or proper healthcare. Too many did not have enough to eat. The children of South Africa were forced to grow up very quickly and take the responsibilities of adults, and many of them were jailed or even killed because they joined the struggle for freedom. Young people who could have been developing their talents to the full and then making a valuable contribution to society were living life on the margins.

=> For another informed view of apartheid, please see Desmond Tutu quotes.

Nelson Mandela quotes on armed force

- We have to fight to defeat the primitive tendency towards the glorification of arms, the adulation of force.

- We must ask the question—which might sound naive to those who have elaborated sophisticated arguments to justify their refusal to eliminate these terrible and terrifying weapons of mass destruction—why do they need them anyway!

Nelson Mandela quotes on change

- One of the most difficult things is not to change society—but to change yourself.

- There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.

Nelson Mandela quotes on children

- Children require to live in a safe and conducive environment that allows them to dream and envision a meaningful future for themselves, their community and society.

- We in the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund firmly believe in letting children be themselves as fully and creatively as possible. We believe in working with children and not just for children. We understand and promote the notion that while children need to be guided, they also have an entrenched right to be whatever they want to be and that they can achieve this only if they are given the space to dream and live out their dreams.

Nelson Mandela quote on conflict

- One of the most important lessons I learnt in my life of struggle for freedom and peace is that in any conflict there comes a point when neither side can claim to be right and the other wrong, no matter how much that might have been the case at the start of a conflict.

Nelson Mandela quote on courage

- 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 quotes on democracy

- We may not take our liberty and our democracy for granted.

- A democracy is an order of social equality and non-discrimination.

- The growth, consolidation and sustained health of our democracy are the responsibilities not only of leaders, but also of each and every citizen.

- When we speak of democracy we speak of a form of government that is concerned with meeting the needs of the people, and especially the poor.

Nelson Mandela quotes on education

- Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.

- 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.

- Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation.

Nelson Mandela quotes on equality

- All people are born equal, with each entitled in equal measure to life, liberty, prosperity, human rights and good governance.

- It is so easy to think of equality demands with reference primarily to race, colour, religion and gender; and to forget, or to relegate to secondary importance, the vast discrimination against disabled persons.

Nelson Mandela quote on females in Africa

- In Africa, women and girls have often been doubly disadvantaged. They have had the curse of low expectations and unequal opportunities.

Short Nelson Mandela quotes on freedom

- Let freedom reign.

Nelson Mandela and his magical smile

- Let your watchwords be: truth and freedom.

- Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.

- Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way.

- Freedom goes hand in hand with responsibility, self-respect and respect for others.

- Order without freedom leads to totalitarianism. Freedom without order leads to anarchy.

- We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.

- Freedom is not only the absence of being in jail, just as it is always said that peace is not merely the absence of war.

- Tyranny, oppression and abuse of human rights still rule in too many parts of the world for us to relent in the struggle for freedom.

- 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.

- Where the freedom and rights of people in one part of the world are violated we are all demeaned and diminished as human beings.

- You must continue to promote the principle of relentless freedom and democracy as it is the foundation upon which issues of human rights are ingrained.

Longer Nelson Mandela quotes on freedom

- A struggling people and their liberation movements have to hold on to the hope of freedom even under the most difficult circumstances, against the greatest odds and in the darkest hours.

- We have to recommit ourselves as a global community to the freedom of every person, group, persuasion or approach to express itself freely and unfettered within the agreed conventions of civility and respect for the rights of others.

- The right of a person to vote freely in democratic elections, to express him or herself without hindrance, to gather and associate as one wishes, to move freely in one's land—these are precious freedoms that lift the human spirit and give expression to our God-given rights.

Long Nelson Mandela quote on freedom

- 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 rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.

Nelson Mandela quotes on globalization

- Whatever happens in any one country has an impact on all of us.

- Not often enough do we emphasize the globalization of responsibility.

- Our differences are our strength as a species and as a world community.

- Let us join hands as citizens of the world, united for democracy, peace and prosperity.

- In this interdependent and globalized world, we have indeed again become the keepers of our brother and sister.

- It is essential for our common future on the planet that the marginalization of Africa be ended and that all parts of the world be accorded equal attention and focus within our globalized world.

- In the interdependent world in which we now live, rich and poor, strong and weak are bound in a common destiny that decrees that none shall enjoy lasting prosperity and stability unless others do too.

- Where globalization means, as it so often does, that the rich and powerful now have new means to further enrich and empower themselves at the cost of the poorer and weaker, we have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom.

Nelson Mandela quotes on himself

- People expect me to perform far beyond my ability.

- I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.

- Not a day goes by when I don't read every newspaper I can lay my hands on, wherever I am.

- I always knew that someday I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine as a free man.

- If you come across as a saint, people can become very discouraged; I was once a young man and I did all the things young men do.

- To the extent that I have been able to achieve anything, I know that this is because I am the product of the people of South Africa.

- I would like to be remembered as part of a team, and I would like my contribution to be assessed as somebody who carried out decisions taken by that collective.

- I could be rather flamboyant in court. I did not act as though I were a black man in a white man’s court, but as if everyone else—white and black—was a guest in my court. (Of his time as an attorney)

- What is regarded as having been achieved by me in the struggle for freedom and human rights is in fact the result of the collective efforts of hundreds and thousands of colleagues and comrades in the leadership of organizations I have worked in and with.

- My days will be filled with contentment to the extent that hands are joined across social divides and national boundaries, between continents and over oceans, to give effect to that common humanity in whose name we have together made the long walk to where we are today.

- I really wanted to retire and rest and spend more time with my children, my grandchildren and of course with my wife. But the problems are such that for anybody with a conscience who can use whatever influence he may have to try to bring about peace, it's difficult to say no.

- 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. (Mandela’s closing words at his 1964 trial)

Nelson Mandela quotes on humanism

- As long as injustice and inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.

- We might have our differences, but we are one people with a common destiny in our rich variety of culture, race and tradition.

- Let it never be said by future generations that indifference, cynicism or selfishness made us fail to live up to the ideals of humanism.

- We need to know with a fresh conviction that we all share a common humanity and that our diversity in the world is the strength for our future together.

- No people can truly say it is blessed with happiness, peace and prosperity where others, as human as itself, continue to be afflicted with misery, armed conflict and terrorism and deprivation.

- This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees.

Nelson Mandela quotes on leadership

- It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.

- I come from a long tradition of collective leadership, consultative decision-making and joint action towards the common good.

- There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people in the right direction.

Nelson Mandela quotes on life

- Forget the past.

- Let your greatness blossom.

- There are bound to be setbacks.

- An injury to one is an injury to all.

- Things will be better in the long run.

- We are the masters of our own fate.

- People have the capacity to put reason above emotion.

- Exercise is the key not only to physical health but to peace of mind.

- It is said over and over, but it is always true that young people are the future.

- The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

- A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones.

- Thinking too well of people often allows them to behave better than they otherwise would.

- It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.

- Learn to know yourself... to search realistically and regularly the processes of your own mind and feelings.

- Out of any debate we must emerge stronger and more united, and… there should be no winners or losers.

- The writers, artists and intellectuals of our societies are the pioneers in any process of regeneration and renaissance.

- 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 quotes on peace

- The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.

- To bring lasting peace is the fundamental task for all people of goodwill.

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

- Building links between the children of different countries can only strengthen the chances for a better world in the future.

- Peace is not a distant end that suddenly appears at the end of violent means. You must be committed to peace while you struggle to end a conflict.

- Greed and disrespect for others, a lack of community feeling and social responsibility—these are spiritual enemies of our efforts to build a new society in which we can live in harmony with one another, in peace and prosperity.

Short Nelson Mandela quotes on poverty

- While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.

- Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural.

- It is people who have made poverty and tolerated poverty, and it is people who will overcome it.

- The single most demeaning feature of our modern world is the persistence of massive poverty.

- Abject poverty is demeaning, is an assault on the dignity of those that suffer it. In the end it demeans us all.

- None of us can sleep comfortably while our brother or sister goes hungry, cold, unsheltered, ignorant and ill.

- Freedoms get devalued if they are for too long devoid of that dignity that comes with a decent quality of living.

- Nothing can be more of an assault on a person’s dignity than the inability to find work and gainful employment.

Longer Nelson Mandela quotes on poverty

- Accompanying poverty are myriads of social ills—illiteracy, homelessness, exposure to preventable diseases, general penury and social vulnerability.

- 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.

Long Nelson Mandela quotes on poverty

- The very right to be human is denied everyday to hundreds of millions of people as a result of poverty: the unavailability of basic necessities such as food, jobs, water and shelter, education, health care and a healthy environment.

- The majority of the world's population languishes in conditions of abject poverty and deprivation. This is in spite of the fact that we have the capacity to take care of all the world's people. This is in spite of the opulence and privilege in which large sectors of the world live.

Very long Nelson Mandela quote on poverty

- All over our globe we find large masses of the population subject to the most abject forms of poverty and deprivation: hunger, lack of adequate shelter, illiteracy and ignorance, and the ravages of preventable diseases. The scientific, technological and industrial progress humankind has made over the last century, outstripping the cumulative results of all that went before, is mocked by this gross inequality in the world. We have the capacity to feed, clothe, shelter, educate and medically treat the population of the planet. Communications technology has brought us so close together that we can no longer claim ignorance of the want and suffering of anyone else anywhere in the world.

Short Nelson Mandela quotes on being in prison

- I came out mature.

- I resolved not to become my own jailer.

- No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.

- Only free men can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts.

- In prison, you had to follow a highly disciplined regime, and that, of course, influenced your behaviour and your thinking.

- The authorities liked to say that we received a balanced diet; it was indeed balanced—between the unpalatable and the inedible.

- Prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all a test of one's commitment.

- What always worried me in prison was (acquiring) the image of someone who is always 100 percent correct and can never do any wrong.

Longer Nelson Mandela quotes on being in prison

- During the years in prison, we were separated from our own children and the children of our country. We yearned to see children laughing, playing and doing all the things that children do.

- It was difficult, of course, to always be disciplined before one went to jail except to say that I have always liked sport. And to that extent I was disciplined in the sense that four days a week I went to the gym for at least two hours.

- I appreciate the importance of religion. You have to have been in a South African jail under apartheid where you could see the cruelty of human beings to each other in its naked form. Again, religious institutions and their leaders gave us hope that one day we would return.

Long Nelson Mandela quotes on being in prison

- That was one of the things that worried me—to be raised to the position of a semi-god—because then you are no longer a human being. I wanted to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental, and a man who is committed, but nevertheless, sometimes fails to live up to expectations.

- I have been surprised a great deal sometimes when I see somebody who looks less than ordinary, but when you talk to the person and he opens his mouth, he is something completely different. It is possible that if I had not gone to jail and been able to read and to listen to the stories of many people... I might not have learned these things.

- For us, such struggles—for sunglasses, long trousers, study privileges, equalized food—were corollaries to the struggle we waged outside prison. The campaign to improve conditions in prison was part of the apartheid struggle. We fought injustice, no matter how large or small, wherever we found it; we fought it to preserve our humanity.

Longest Nelson Mandela quotes on being in prison

- One was angry at what was happening (in apartheid South Africa)—the humiliation, the loss of our human dignity. We tended to react in accordance with anger and our emotion rather than sitting down and thinking about things properly. But in jail—especially for those who stayed in single cells—you had enough opportunity to sit down and think. And you were in contact with a lot of people who had a high education and who were widely travelled. When they told of their experiences, you felt humbled. All those influences changed one.

- If you have an objective in life, then you want to concentrate on that and not engage in infighting with your enemies. You want to create an atmosphere where you can move everybody towards the goal you have set for yourself—as well as the collective for which you work. And, therefore, for all people who have found themselves in the position of being in jail and trying to transform society, forgiveness is natural because you have no time to be retaliative... You want to mobilize everybody to support your cause and the aims you have set for your life.

- It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

- When I arrived in Johannesburg, I was poor, and many people helped me get by. But when I became a lawyer and I was in a better (financial) position, I became too busy with legal affairs and forgot about people who had helped me. Instead of going to them and saying look, here's a bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates, and saying thank you, I had never even thought about these things. I felt that I had behaved like a wild man... like an animal, and I really criticized myself for the way I had behaved. But I was able to do this because I had time to think about it, whereas outside jail—from morning to sunset—you are moving from one meeting to the other, and there is no time to think.

Nelson Mandela quotes on racism

- I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.

- I hate race discrimination most intensely and in all its manifestations. I have fought it all during my life; I fight it now, and will do so until the end of my days.

=> (Also see Martin Luther King Quotes on racism.)

Nelson Mandela quotes on religion

- Whenever the noble ideals and values of religion have been joined with practical action to realize them, it has strengthened us.

- Throughout generations of oppression, dispossession and discrimination, religion gave countless people the determination and the commitment to resist inhumanity.

- Religion is one of the most important forces in the world. Whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew, or a Hindu, religion is a great force, and it can help one have command of one's own morality, one's own behaviour, and one's own attitude.

Nelson Mandela quote on responsibility

- Others will not save us if we do not primarily commit ourselves.

Nelson Mandela quotes on South Africa

- We in South Africa owe much to the presence of Gandhi in our midst for 21 years.

- We believe that South Africa belongs to all the people who live in it, and not to one group, be it black or white.

- It has been an inspiration to serve a nation that has helped renew the world's hope that all conflicts, no matter how intractable, are capable of peaceful resolution.

- It is a measure of our success as a nation that an international community that inspired hope in us, in turn itself finds hope in how we overcame the divisions of centuries by reaching out to one another.

Nelson Mandela quote on success

- None of us acting alone can achieve success.

Nelson Mandela quote on time

- We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.

Nelson Mandela quotes on ubuntu

- Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve?

- A traveller through our country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of ubuntu.

Nelson Mandela quotes on the power of words

- It is never my custom to use words lightly.

- If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact upon the way people live or die.

~ End of Nelson Mandela quotes ~

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