The man whose fierce dignity inspired the world

Nelson Mandela 1918 – 2013: ‘one of the most profoundly good human beings’ © Getty Images

Nelson Mandela is dead. After 95 years, his life ended on Thursday December 5th 2013. As one of the most revered figures of the 20th century, what is his legacy to humanity?

As soon as news of Nelson Mandela’s death broke yesterday the tributes started pouring in. ‘His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings and countries can change for the better,’ said Barack Obama. ‘A great light has gone out in the world,’ said David Cameron. ‘He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale,’ said Muhammad Ali.

It was soon clear that he is almost universally considered to be among the most inspirational figures of modern times.

As a young freedom fighter struggling against the brutal racial segregation of South Africa’s apartheid, he was a standard bearer for equality, dignity and democracy. As a political prisoner, he was forced to spend his days breaking rocks in a hot, harsh quarry. His eyesight was impaired by the relentless sun, and his health suffered under the terrible conditions. Yet he stayed sane and became a symbol of courage, perseverance and hope.

But perhaps most remarkable of all were his actions when, after 27 years of imprisonment, he was released and elected as South Africa’s first black president. Rather than avenging his former oppressors, he publicly forgave them and threw himself into the task of building a society in which all races could be equal and free.

Between 1994 and 1999, as Mandela guided South Africa peacefully from apartheid to democracy, he became the most respected statesman in the world. Many in his own country worshipped the man they called ‘Madiba’. Yet instead of building a personality cult, he willingly surrendered power after a single term – showing a restraint that few leaders have shared.

At the height of his fame, 66% of respondents to a BBC survey agreed that Mandela was ‘the greatest leader the world has ever known’. He is one of a tiny group of 20th century figures – alongside Mohandas Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King – who are talked of almost as secular saints.

Best of the best?

However admirable these leaders were, though, they were only humans, with human flaws and failings. Martin Luther King was a notorious womaniser; Churchill’s career is littered with questionable decisions; Gandhi advocated appeasing Hitler; and Mandela loved expensive clothes and led a campaign of violent resistance. These figures are only symbols for wider movements, some say; instead of hero worshipping individuals, we should recognise that true change comes from the masses.

Of course mass movements are important, reply others. But once in a while a truly remarkable person comes along with the strength, wisdom and charisma to stamp their mark on their times. Nelson Mandela was one of history’s true heroes, they say; and it is right that we honour him as such.

You Decide

  1. Who is the greatest hero of the past century? Why?
  2. Is it wrong to treat flawed individuals as heroes?


  1. Research a great hero of recent times. Write down three reasons why they are considered great, and one reason why they are flawed.
  2. Research the history of 20th century South Africa and make a timeline of key events.

Some People Say...

“There is no such thing as part freedom.’Nelson Mandela”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not South African, so why should Nelson Mandela be a hero to me?
For a start, Nelson Mandela’s career has made a serious difference to global politics. Despite being troubled by corruption, the nation he helped to form is a fast-growing economy with increasing influence in Africa and the world. When Mandela was released from jail, there were three African democracies; now there are 22, and Mandela’s leadership has provided a powerful example.
That still doesn’t affect my life.
Well, he might not have made a personal difference to you. But you could still be inspired by Mandela’s story: the strength of his convictions, his courage, his willingness to forgive people no matter how much he is wronged. Surely these are virtues to which everybody should aspire.

Word Watch

Under apartheid (‘apartness’ in the colonial Dutch language Afrikaans), the population was crudely split into four races: native, white, Asian and coloured. Different races were forcibly banned from mingling in any public spaces including schools, hospitals and even beaches. All political power belonged to the whites, while black Africans were barred from most jobs and denied the vote.
The name given to Mandela by his native Xhosa clan.
Personality cult
When leaders (such as Stalin in the Soviet Union or Mao in China) use propaganda to create a personal mythology that elevates them to almost godlike status.
Mohandas Gandhi
Often known as ‘Mahatma’ (a term of spiritual respect), Gandhi led the Indian nationalist movement against the British Empire. He was a pacifist who spread the idea of non-violent resistance.
Winston Churchill
Britain’s wartime leader, famous for his fierce hatred of totalitarianism, his gruff, rousing speeches and his slightly outrageous wit.
Martin Luther King
A clergyman and a great speaker who was the most famous figure in the US civil rights movement for full racial equality. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968.

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