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Nelson Mandela

“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 walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For 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. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

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


From Nelson Mandela, writing in his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

Last summer, I took an eight-person night class on leadership taught by Constance Newman. Oftentimes I and a few other students would linger behind with Connie, trying to pick her brain about this-and-that and glean from her any anecdote she could offer about her upbringing, illustrious tenure in the U.S. government, and time she lived in apartheid South Africa.

I remember one occasion when I and my friend G. asked her who she thought was the greatest political leader since the industrial revolution. Since the course was part of a graduate program in American government, and Connie possesses a deep understanding of American history, my friend and I were expecting one of the usual suspects — Washington, Lincoln, one of the Roosevelts, maybe King. But her answer was as quick as it was unequivocal. Nelson Mandela.

A few weeks later, she assigned us the Kennedy School of Government’s case study on Madiba (I’ve hosted the PDF here) and devoted the subsequent class to explaining what made Mandela such an insuppressible leader and incandescent symbol of justice around the world. As I left class that night, I understood why she answered the way she did.

The entire case study is worth flipping through — especially in these next few days when we mourn Madiba’s passing — but my favorite portion can be found on page 14, in the section titled “Life with him was a life without him”. It reads:

Mandela met Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela in 1957 and decided almost on the spot, he recalls fondly, that he wanted to marry her…

They married June 14, 1958 at her home but had no time for a honeymoon. Nor did they have much time for marriage. As Mandela himself recognized: ‘The wife of a freedom fighter is often like a widow, even when her husband is not in prison.’ He rose at 4 a.m. and was often not home until midnight, after political meetings. Winnie wrote:

There was never any kind of life that I can recall as family life, a young bride’s life, where you sit with your husband and dream dreams of what life might have been… You just couldn’t tear Nelson from the people, from the struggle. The nation came first. Everything else was second.

From 4 a.m. to midnight. “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – NM, 1918-2013

Nelson Mandela

(Perhaps randomly, the arch of Mandela’s life, and particularly his refusal to succumb to bitterness upon liberation, called to mind another great freedom fighter — this one from our country, and a survivor of our own legacy of racial injustice. Booker T. Washington, who reflected on his freedom after years of slavery and said,

“I learned the lesson that great men cultivate love, and that only little men cherish a spirit of hatred. I learned that assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong; and that oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak. It is now long ago that I learned this lesson… and resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him…”

Read on:

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington on Living for Others