In the small village of Mvezo in Transkei, South Africa, a child was born on July 18, 1918 with the name Rolihlahla, meaning “pulling the branch of a tree” in the Xhosa language, or more colloquially: "troublemaker." And Rolihlahla Mandela, who grew up to become Nelson Mandela, sure lived up to that name.
But he was the kind of troublemaker this world needed.
Growing up living in huts and eating maize, sorghum, pumpkins and beans, Mandela’s humble childhood was relatively carefree until the age of nine, when his father died and he was adopted by the acting regent of the Thembu people, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo.
Thrust into a new lifestyle, Mandela, whose first name was changed to Nelson at some point in South Africa’s British school system, developed an interest in African history and soon learned the impact that white people had on the South African people. By the time he was in his 20s, he was a leader in the anti-apartheid movement and in 1942, he joined the African National Congress.
For two decades, Mandela fought the South African government’s racist policies and actions through non-violent and peaceful means, like at the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People.
But by 1961, he decided it was time to use guerilla war tactics to truly put an end to apartheid and co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, also known as MK, an armed offshoot of the ANC. After organizing a workers’ strike, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. Another trial in 1963 led to a life sentence for political offenses.
Spending 27 years in jail, from November 1962 until February 1990, Nelson emerged even more motivated (and with a law degree he earned by the University of London’s correspondence program). His release happened under President Frederik Willem de Klerk — who worked with Mandela to create South Africa’s first democratic election on April 27, 1994, when Mandela was elected.
The power of his words throughout his speeches, as well as through letters written in prison, continue to resonate, as he’s now remembered on his birthday July 18, celebrated as Mandela Day since 2009.
On democracy: “It is not our diversity which divides us; it is not our ethnicity, or religion or culture that divides us. Since we have achieved our freedom, there can only be one division amongst us: between those who cherish democracy and those who do not.”
On legacy: “A blind pursuit of cheap popularity has nothing to do with revolution.”
On strength: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times that I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
On language: “It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.”
On facing challenges: “Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.”
On education: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
On parenting: “Few things make the life of a parent more rewarding and sweet as successful children.”
On determination: “Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.”
On freedom: “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.”
On life: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
On morality: “Those who conduct themselves with morality, integrity and consistency need not fear the forces of inhumanity and cruelty.”
On humor: “You sharpen your ideas by reducing yourself to the level of the people you are with and a sense of humor and a complete relaxation, even when you’re discussing serious things, does help to mobilize friends around you. And I love that.”
On giving back: “A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.”
On death: “Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity”