I try to profile people who you've probably never heard; ordinary people who acted with extraordinary courage, at great cost to themselves, because of deeply held principles; who exhibited a special kind of courage, moral courage. Nelson Mandela is not such a person, he's certainly one of the most famous men in the world; we all know his name. But that does not change the fact that he was once a man in circumstances which made it virtually certain that he would die young, in obscurity, and in agony. Somehow, he overcame that virtual certainty to become the man we all know. What a story.
Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in Mvezo in the former republic of Transkei in South Africa. While a young man, Mandela became a political activist, a protestor against injustice in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. In 1942, then young man in his twenties, he joined the African National Congress. For 20 years, he was a leader of the ANC, directing a campaign of peaceful, non-violent, defiance of the white-minority ruled South African government and its openly racist policies (apartheid).
Mandela was arrested (at the age of 42) on August 5, 1962 on charges of inciting workers to strike and leaving the country without valid travel documents. On November 7, 1962 a South African court sentenced him to five years in prison at hard labor.
Two years later, along with four "co-conspirators", Mandela was convicted of four counts of sabotage (an attempt to overthrow the government) and his sentence was extended to life. The goal of the government of South Africa was to break the man. His years in prison were characterized by mistreatment, he was forced to perform hard labor, denied access to the outside world (he was allowed to receive one letter from outside the prison every six months, and allowed to write one other). Nelson Mandela refused to be defeated. In fact, he became the spiritual leader of the anti-apartheid movement and an image of defiance of unjust authority to the entire world; he became "the world's most famous political prisoner."
The authorities tried for years to break Mandela's spirit. To isolate him, silence him, destroy his will to resist authority. They failed. Even in prison, rendered powerless, he resisted, and through that resistance, and public awareness of conditions in those prisons, officials were force to make concessions to basic human rights.
In 1985, Mandela was offered a deal for his freedom by President P.W. Botha. On one condition: he had to publicly renounce his militancy. To publicly admit defeat. In pure defiance, Mandela rejected the offer. He told Botha (essentially) to go pound sand.
Four years later, in 1989, Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by Frederik Willem de Klerk, who became South Africa's last apartheid-era President. In 1990, one year after taking office, F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups and announced that he would free Nelson Mandela. The entire world rejoiced.
On April 29, 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of the Republic of South Africa, in the first free open election held in that country's history. Nelson Mandela voted, for the first time in his life, in that election ... at the age of 75.
Nelson Mandela was a huge part of the revolution against apartheid rule in his country.
The most frequent comment I hear about protestors is that "they cannot win. They are opposing massive amounts of power and wealth. They are wasting their time."
Really? That's sufficient reason to stand down in a principled fight? When we realize we can't possibly win; the most acceptable choice is to give up?
I'm sure that reason was given to Nelson Mandela; a man who stood firm against "unconquerable" power. I'm sure he was told, more than a few times, "You can't win!" He stood firm anyway.
Whatever the issue, no one of us who aspires to demonstrate courage in upholding our principles should be influenced by the argument that we can't win. Find something that matters strongly to you, and make a principled stand. You won't regret it; I promise you.
Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees, right?
Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95. Mandela remains a global symbol of courage and freedom; and a man who steadfastly refused to compromise his principles.
I regard Nelson Mandela as the greatest human being who lived during my lifetime. Mandela exhibited every trait of moral courage and leadership, every day of his life, and he will always be a personal hero of mine.