Mandela’s Secret

Nelson Mandela was a giant, a colossus who seemed to stand astride history and above the everyday. His passing at the age of 95 is being marked by expressions of condolence and admiration from around the world.

As I’ve reflected on this man’s life, I’m drawn to how he managed to emerge from unspeakable pain and persecution without the baggage of bitterness and malice. This is not only a great example of practical character and grace—it’s also likely one of the keys to Mandela’s greatness.

N.Mandela in his cell on Robben Island (revisit} 1994The evening before his release from 27 years in prison, Mandela met with South African President F.W. de Klerk. They had an extraordinary conversation. It was Saturday, February 10, 1990.

A week earlier, De Klerk had made a public pledge that Mandela would be released from incarceration, but he gave no specific timetable, so the prisoner was surprised when the President told him that he would be freed the next day.  In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote: “I deeply wanted to leave prison as soon as I could, but to do so on such short notice would not be wise,” adding, “I thanked Mr. de Klerk, and then said that at the risk of appearing ungrateful I would prefer to have a week’s notice in order that my family and my organization could be prepared.”

The President was surprised by Mandela’s request and turned him down. He insisted that the prisoner would have to leave the next day. It was just one more indignity. Then de Klerk offered Mandela a glass of whiskey—maybe it was a peace offering of sorts.

Mandela had become the iconic face of global opposition to the very idea of apartheid since his imprisonment in 1964. He spent most of his prison life on Robben Island, laboring in a limestone quarry.  And the man, who would ultimately embody the political transformation of his country, began that process by somehow turning his prison cell into a place of personal progress. As his legend grew—the mystique that would one day fuel his political presence and power—so did the man himself.

How do we know this?  Well, because Nelson Mandela clearly learned and was determined to demonstrate one of the most important lessons in life, that being—no matter how much you know, or how gifted you are, all of your potential can be squandered if sacrificed on the altar of pettiness, bitterness, and a lack of personal grace and mercy.

This capacity is what made Lincoln great with his words about having “malice for none and charity for all.” And in contrast, the lack of this quality brought down one of our U.S. Presidents, Richard Nixon, who seemed to grasp the concept too late when he said upon resigning from office in 1974: “Always remember, others may hate you, but they don’t win, unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.”

In contrast to the all-too-common human tendency to bear grudges and harbor resentment, Nelson Mandela had something different in mind when he emerged from captivity on February 11, 1990. He said it this way: “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.”













2 thoughts on “Mandela’s Secret

  1. A great lesson for us all. Rodney King did not realize the profoundness of his utterance when he said, “why can’t we all just get along”. Centuries earlier Christ said it this way, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in Heaven; for HE makes the HIS sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44). Imagine a world that practiced truth in what was righteously preached!


  2. Mandela was not a man to be praised. He supported terrorist acts including bombings in crowded places. He never renounced his actions. He supported Communist leaders. Apparently its become to PC to support him.


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