Five lessons we learned from Nelson Mandela


Keli Goff

As the world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela, one of the most revered human rights activists in history, tributes have poured in from world leaders, including President Barack Obama, as well as everyday people whose lives were touched by his work and legacy. Those who knew him personally are recalling his most inspiring moments. But even for those of us who did not know him, Mandela’s example imbued us with some powerful lessons. Here’s a look at what he taught all of us. 1. There is nothing more empowering than forgiveness. Mandela’s lack of outward bitterness about the treatment he endured could very well have played a role in the long and rewarding life he ultimately enjoyed. A study found that those who forgive others live longer. Following his release from prison in 1990, Mandela did not focus on punishing his persecutors. Instead he set his sights on uniting his long-divided country. This focus on his future as opposed to his painful past, despite the horrors he endured, is an example from which all of us who have endured far less than he, can learn. 2. A good man (or woman) is worth the wait. Twenty-seven years. That is how long Winnie Mandela had to wait for her husband to come home. But wait she did. Though the couple divorced in the years following his 1990 release from prison, the fact that Winnie supported her husband and was willing to wait for him affirmed not only her belief in her man, but in his extraordinary work and cause. By doing so she made it easy for the rest of the world to believe in him, and the idea that he would one day be free again. Many people pay lip service to the notion, “through good times and bad times,” but the Mandelas lived it. Their devotion should make all of us think twice the next time any of us hit what feels like a rough patch with someone we love. 3. Second acts can be better than the first. Increasingly in media and particularly in modern American culture, there is a sense that if you are not a millionaire by 30, or a senator by 40, life is passing you by. But Mandela made some of his greatest contributions, including becoming South Africa’s first black president, when he was in his 70s. Perhaps “retirement age” has a different meaning in Africa. Or perhaps Mandela just realized that when it comes to passion for social justice and social change, and a desire to make the world a better place, age is nothing but a number. 4. Good leaders can rise in good times, but only great leaders can thrive in bad. Plenty of so-called leaders can lead marches, give interviews or rile up an adoring crowd with an inspiring speech. But few can inspire crowds from behind bars – and even fewer can do so for nearly three decades. While plenty of movements have fallen apart when a charismatic leader is no longer in a position of power, Mandela’s leadership capabilities were so extraordinary that the causes for which he fought thrived despite his imprisonment. 5. A movement is greater than a man. One of Mandela’s greatest qualities was his willingness to ensure that his work would continue whether he was behind prison bars or was no longer with us on this Earth. He may have passed on, but his quest for equality lives on.

Keli Goff is a special correspondent for The Root, an online magazine focusing on African-American issues and distributed by The Washington Post/Bloomberg News Service.