The Washington Post

This is how Nelson Mandela thought about policy

The Washington Post's Sudarsan Raghavan talks about the life and legacy of former South African president Nelson Mandela. (Thomas LeGro/The Washington Post)

Nelson Mandela, the iconic freedom fighter who brought an end to apartheid in South Africa nearly two decades ago, has died. In the hail of inspirational quotes, we often forget that Mandela wasn't just a leader and crusader for justice, but also someone who thought very pragmatically about how to achieve his ends: What allies to make, which levers to pull, and when to back down.

Here are a few bits of his wisdom, and ways he explained the struggle.

1. “We had, and I continue to have, the perhaps naïve expectation that the world — particularly the industrialised Western world — would rise to hail the end of apartheid and the achievement of a genuinely non-racial order with investment and support. Where some other parts of the world have experienced resurgence of old divisions and conflicts, we have as a nation come together to rise above racial divides of our past. One would have hoped, and continues to hope, that such a situation provides an exemplary model to the world — a model worth supporting through vigorous trade and investment." —  Address at South African Breweries, October 2001.

2. "There is at times a tendency to view civil liberties as distinct from socio-economic rights. They are sometimes postulated as the more abstract part of democracy and as of less immediate relevance to the masses of people who are poor and in want. There can be no more forceful refutation of that false distinction than the manner in which President Roosevelt formulated the generic freedoms of democracy." — Speech on receiving the "Roosevelt Freedom Award," June 2002.

3. "Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life." — Speech at Live 8, July 2005.

4. "Protesters, could always point to unhealthy rivers, social inequity, debt burdens and say "Ngalamadami" — Xhosa for 'It is the dams!' But that is not so. It is not the dams. It is the hunger. It is the thirst. It is the darkness of the Alexandra I knew as a law student. It is townships and rural huts without running water, lights or sanitation. It is the time wasted gathering water by hand. There is a real, pressing need for power in every sense of the word. Rather than single out Ngalamadami for excessive blame, or credit, we must learn to answer 'Sithi sonke!' or 'It is all of us!' " — Remarks at the release of the Final Report of the World Commission on Dams, November 2000.

5. "It is perhaps difficult for white South Africans, with an ingrained prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so readily accept communists as their friends. But to us the reason is obvious. Theoretical differences, amongst those fighting against oppression, is a luxury which cannot be afforded." — Statement in his defense at the Rivonia Trial, April 1964.

6. "We are aware that the expectations of what your Presidency will achieve are high and that the demands on you will be great. We therefore once more wish you and your family strength and fortitude in the challenging days and years that lie ahead. You will always be in our affection as a young man who dared to dream and to pursue that dream. We wish you well." — Statement on the inauguration of Barack Obama, January 2009.

7. "When I was released from prison I announced my belief in nationalization as a cornerstone of our economic policy. As I moved around the world and heard the opinions of leading business people and economists about how to grow an economy, I was persuaded and convinced about the free market. The question is how we match those demands of the free market with the burning social issues of the world." — Address at a Johns Hopkins symposium, November 2003

8. "As a movement for national liberation, the ANC has no mandate to espouse a Marxist ideology. But as a democratic movement, as a Parliament of the people of our country, the ANC has defended and will continue to defend the right of any South African to adhere to the Marxist ideology if that is their wish." — Speech at a rally to relaunch the South African Communist Party, July 1990

9. "Well, I have written to the businessman to say this is what the man who knows this field thinks we should do. No schools, no new schools, no new clinics, but water for the schools that are there, because that will go a long way in preventing cholera." — Speech, August 2002, narrating a dispute with a rich American over whether schools or clinics are a better use of his donations.

10. "What has become of our rationality, our ability to think? We have used our reason to make great advances in science and technology, though often using those for warfare and plunder. We have placed people on the moon and in space; we have split the atom and transplanted organs; we are cloning life and manipulating nature. Yet we have failed to sit down as rational beings and eliminate conflict, war and consequent suffering of innocent millions, mostly women, children and the aged." — Address on receiving the International Gandhi Peace Prize, March 2001.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Sleep advice you won't find in baby books
In defense of dads
Scenes from Brazil's Carajás Railway
Play Videos
For good coffee, sniff, slurp and spit
How to keep your child safe in the water
How your online data can get hijacked
Play Videos
How to avoid harmful chemicals in school supplies
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
How much can one woman eat?
Play Videos
What you need to know about Legionnaires' disease
How to get organized for back to school
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom
Next Story
Brad Plumer · December 5, 2013

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.