The Moral Courage of Nelson Mandela

Mandela was a remarkable gift from God to South Africa and the world — may we remember most of all his great courage.

Never before in history was one human being so universally acknowledged in his lifetime as the embodiment of magnanimity and reconciliation as Nelson Mandela was.

He set aside the bitterness of enduring 27 years in apartheid prisons — and the weight of centuries of colonial division, subjugation and repression — to personify the spirit and practice of ubuntu. He perfectly understood that people are dependent on other people in order for individuals and society to prosper.

That was his dream for South Africa, and the hope that he represented the world over. If it was possible in South Africa, it was possible in Ireland, it was possible in Bosnia and Rwanda, it was possible in Colombia, it is possible in Israel and Palestine.

Of course, in the spirit of ubuntu, Madiba was quick to point out that he alone could not take credit for the many accolades that came his way; that he was surrounded by people of integrity who were brighter and more youthful than himself.

That is only partially true.

The truth is that the 27 years Madiba spent in the belly of the apartheid beast deepened his compassion and capacity to empathize with others. On top of the lessons about leadership and culture to which he was exposed growing up, and his developing a voice for young people in anti-apartheid politics, prison seemed to add an understanding of the human condition.

Like a most precious diamond honed deep beneath the surface of the earth, the Madiba who emerged from prison in January 1990 was virtually flawless.

Instead of calling for his pound of flesh, he proclaimed the message of forgiveness and reconciliation, inspiring others by his example to extraordinary acts of nobility of spirit.

He embodied what he proclaimed — he walked the talk. He invited his former jailer to attend his presidential inauguration as a VIP guest, and he invited the man who led the state’s case against him at the Rivonia Trial, calling for the imposition of the death penalty, to lunch at the presidency.

He visited the widow of the high priest of apartheid, Betsy Verwoerd, in the white Afrikaner-only enclave of Orania. He had a unique flair for spectacular, hugely symbolic acts of human greatness that would be gauche carried out by most others. Who will forget the electrifying moment in the 1995 rugby World Cup final when he stepped out on the Ellis Park pitch with captain Francois Pienaar’s No 6 on the Springbok jersey he was wearing? It was a gesture that did more for nation building and reconciliation than any number of preacher’s sermons or politician’s speeches.

Although always a team man, Madiba was also sufficiently comfortable in his own skin, in his own ability to determine right from wrong, that he displayed few of the insecurities associated with many politicians. He was able to accept criticism — and even prepared to apologize when he felt he an apology was due.

He had the moral and ethical courage, during and after his presidency, to do and say things that were not always in accordance with the official policy of his beloved ANC.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) published its findings, some of which the ANC strongly opposed, Madiba had the grace to publicly accept the report.

Another example was the establishment of South Africa’s first rural AIDS treatment site, by his foundation, at a time when the South African government was dithering and obfuscating in response to the pandemic.

When one of the TRC commissioners was accused in an amnesty hearing of being involved in the case before the commission, President Mandela appointed a judicial commission to investigate. Later, the president’s secretary called me to get the contact details of the commissioner. I realized that the president wanted to put him at ease, but I told the secretary that as the chairperson of the commission I should know the findings of the judicial commission first. Within minutes the president himself was on the line saying, “Yes, Mpilo, you’re quite right.  I’m sorry.”  Politicians find it almost impossible to apologize. Only truly great persons apologize easily; they are not insecure.

Can you imagine what would have happened to us had Nelson Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 bristling with resentment at the gross miscarriage of justice that had occurred in the Rivonia trial? Can you imagine where South Africa would be today had he been consumed by a lust for revenge, to want to pay back for all the humiliations and all the agony that he and his people had suffered at the hands of their white oppressors?

Instead the world was amazed, indeed awed, by the unexpectedly peaceful transition of 1994, followed not by an orgy of revenge and retribution but by the wonder of forgiveness and reconciliation epitomized in the processes of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.

It came as no surprise that his name towered above those of any others when the BBC conducted a poll to determine who should head a world government to guide the affairs of our conflict-ridden global village. A colossus of unimpeachable moral character and integrity, he was the world’s most admired and most revered public figure.

People warmed to him because they knew, they felt in their bones, that he cared genuinely. He was consumed by this passion to serve because he believed that a leader exists for the sake of the led, not for self-aggrandizement or self-promotion.

People sense this; you cannot fool them, that was why workers at the Mercedes Benz plant in the Eastern Cape presented him with a special car they had made in appreciation. That was why, when he went to Britain on his farewell state visit, the police had to protect him from the crowds, which might have crushed him out of love. Usually, heads of state are protected on state visits to ensure their safety from those who may be hostile.

His passion to serve drove him to continue his long walk so prodigally, even after retiring. Thus he campaigned vigorously for those affected by HIV and AIDS, even as the government that succeeded his appeared to falter in the face of the epidemic; and he continued to raise funds for children and other projects — all for others, and not for himself.

Did he have weaknesses? Of course he did. His chief weakness was his steadfast loyalty to his organization and to his colleagues. He retained in his cabinet underperforming, frankly incompetent ministers who should have been dismissed. This tolerance of mediocrity arguably laid the seeds for greater levels of mediocrity and corruptibility that were to come.

Was he a saint? Not if a saint is entirely flawless. I believe he was saintly because he inspired others powerfully and revealed in his character, transparently, many of God’s attributes of goodness: compassion, concern for others, desire for peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Thank God for this remarkable gift to South Africa and the world.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.


Written by

  • Eholmboe

    Wonderful piece everyone should read, most notably our incredibly dysfunctional “leaders” in Washington

  • medogsbstfrnd

    Thank you, Bishop Tutu, for providing utterance for the sorrow and joy that swirl within our hearts at this moment. Thank God for Nelson Mandela. Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica.

  • PokerKnave

    Let his death be a chance for the World leaders to try and do better. Can you imagine if we had 10 leaders with Mandela’s ability and self sacrifice?

  • GoNats515

    On the flip side, as President, he pushed through one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world, according to the Guttmacher Institute, the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1996. It allows abortion on demand up to the 20th week; after it and up to birth for “serious medical reasons”; and, as amended in 2004, allows registered nurses and midwives to perform abortions as well before the 12th week. I wonder how God has judged him for this.

  • Rmunoz1

    One of the great men of the world, one of the few truly great men of the world.

  • cricket44

    Yes. He understood that women are people. These actions amplify his integrity, your opinion notwithstanding.

  • Gilson Landry S. Brasil

    I have always been in awe of Mandela’s ability to forgive. I wasn’t alive to see Gandhi, or Martin Luther king. All great exaples of perserverance and great capacity for forgiveness during their strugles. But I’m sure glad to have been alive to witness Nelson Mandela’s show of forgivness in the flesh. He’s a great example for myself who can be incredibly stubborn and self righteous sometimes. I look forward teaching
    my daughter Elsha about this great man.

  • 3vandrum

    “Thank God for this remarkable gift to South Africa and the world.”
    In 1993 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime.
    Days before his 90th birthday, the United States gave Nelson Mandela a special present. On 1 July 2008, more than eighteen years after his release from a South African prison, then-President George W Bush signed a bill which removed Mandela from the US terror watch list. Up until his removal from the list, Mandela had to apply for special permission in order to be able to visit the United States.
    Margaret Thatcher, former British PM said the following in 1987. ‘The ANC is a typical terrorist organization … Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land’ .
    Why it took so many years for these governments to recognize this great man?


    It will give them a chance to be at one place and by coming to terms with their rivals, they can present a valuable tribute to the truly great Madiba!

  • amelia45

    God sent Madiba Mandela into the world, as He sends all of us. Madiba Mandela chose to live his life for good, to love rather than hate.

    We can all make that choice. Why don’t we?

    I thank you, God, for the gift of the life of Madiba Mandela and the example his life gives us. Help me learn to love and care.

  • GoNats515

    Agree that my opinion is without standing. I thought my post was clear that it is God’s opinion on the issue of abortion that matters. Agree also that women are people. However, it is possible that in God’s judgement, the unborn are people too, with a right to life; a right that, again in God’s eyes, may supersede a woman’s right to do with her body as she chooses.

  • jay2drummer

    All you say is “possible.” However, while it is possible that God feels that way, it’s every bit as possible that God doesn’t feel that way at all. However, when looking at facts, you see that what Mandela did saved a lot of lives and increased general quality of those lives. Families were (and still are) having trouble feeding their children, and child mortality was (and is) a massive problem. Forcing women to have more children when they can barely care for the ones they have is inhumane. There’s also the whole child pregnancy thing, which causes thousands of girls to drop out of school every year in southern Africa, which kills their odds of getting jobs which could help them pay to care for their children. Add overpopulation to the mix, on top of the lack of resources, and you have a major problem, you have people dying, and you have those who do survive stuck in a cycle of poverty.

  • Catken1

    GoNats- does anyone’s right to life supersede your right to say yes or no to the use of your personal body parts? Are you willing to let someone else choose for you when someone gets to have a pint of your blood, a piece of your liver, some of your bone marrow?

    In God’s eyes, is a woman a person, or a slave? Because that’s what we call it when someone’s body belongs to another person, to be used for that person’s good without their consent, or any concern about what happens to them as a result.

  • cricket44

    Go, don’t presume to know God’s opinion. As people, women are not to be used against their will. That means if they do not wish to remain pregnant, they cannot be compelled to do so.

  • tony55398

    Saints are saints because of their Love, not because they are flawless, in fact their sins may be many but their Love is great. Love covers a multitude of sin.

  • tony55398

    When Christ said I do not know you, He meant and means, He is not a part of you, He is not contained within you, you do not possess Him, for Jesus is the Love expressed to the world. In other words you are totally bereft of the Love that saves, you have no Love to Love with. Pride and Hatred and all that goes with is all that remains.

  • Reed Kofoed

    Where is America’s Nelson Mandela? And by that, I simply mean…Where is the leader that is going to bring people together? I know we all have opinions, and the most extreme opinions get the attention of the day, but there has got to be someone in this country who can put all bias and upbringing and political views aside long enough to have an effective conversation on the challenges of our time!

    I do not claim to have all the answers, but there has got to be a way to bring people together in order to have meaningful dialogue on tough conversations that are dividing this nation. Maybe we could/should start by actually sitting down and discussing what brought us to this point in time and accepting the past for what it is. Then maybe we can come together, having discussed and learned from our past, and forge ahead.

    I believe that, like it or not, most everything in life follows the bell curve. There are a few extremes on both sides, but a whole lot of people in the middle that just want to move forward.

    Who’s ready to start some meaningful dialogue??

  • Secular1

    Tony, why don’t take your tin cup with pencils and scream, in some wrtetched street corner, your silly inanities.

  • Secular1

    Amelia do you chastise your “invisible Flying Pink Unicorn” for all the Hitlers, Samozas, Mohammeds and Timur the Lames she betsowed on us. If not who gives a crap that you thank her, for Mandela.

  • Secular1

    GoNat is your problem with Mandela really with the abortion policies under his rule or is it really that he was the president of Afrkaaner nation whike being black, or that he was allowed out of Robbens Island eventhough he was a commie? Or is it because Castro thought he was great and so did Arafat? Which is it really? Come now.

  • Secular1

    medogsbstfrnd pleasse read my response to Amelia, and tell us what your answers are for that qestion.

  • Secular1

    A beautiful piece indeed. That said it has been my own pet hypothesis that in all history when an opression had been ended by extreme amount of violence that only engenders furthe violence and renewed opression. This vicious cycle can only be broken when the oppressors realize their own oppression and start to make amends for it. Likewise, the oppressed under their leadership can show forebearance to wait for the realization on part of teh oppressors. South Africa nd Zimbabwe are two examples of this contrast. While Zimbabwe had supposed ly achieved its independence in APril 1980 through fits of violence, neither Ian Smith the white racist had teh fortitude to read teh writing on the wall nor Robert Mugabe was a democrat and a compromiser nor secure to make his country a better place for its people. On the other hand ANC was either unable to overthrow the racist regime of PW Botha or had the persevrence to wait it out. Whatever be the reason the fact is that FWde Klerk had teh fortitude to recognize the inevitability and Nelson Mandela found a partner to work with. In this process, he became a more tempered man and learnt the essential skill of statesman, a conquering warrior lacks. On teh other hand a warrior can only function when he is the de facto autocrat and never learns to get out of that mold be Open to ideas, skills to compromize. On the other hand a warrior can only function when he is teh de facto autocrat and never learns to get out of that mold. Especially when he/she is thrust into the role of leading the government. Countless of crises encountered all seem to be waiting for a simple solution crafetd by expediency – rule by fiat. The conquering warrior never learns to compromise and fiat becomes oppression, nver sees his own dispensability and the next cycle of oppression starts.

    While I adore Mr. Mandela and brings a tear to my eye every time I hear of him, lets also give F W De Klerk his due, by letting Mandela to learn to be Great.


    Yet another famous Christian that has changed the world for the better! Well done faithful servant!
    There’s room for one more! Merry Christmas!

  • tony55398

    Secular1, I have no intention of convincing you of anything, so calm down. I am not your judge, nor do I want to be. Most of the Atheists I know are really nice guys.

  • taniya

    mr. nelson was a great man though i never heard of him i want to be like him or michell obama