15 Quotes by Nelson Mandela | History Hit

15 Quotes by Nelson Mandela

Amy Irvine

08 Dec 2023
Nelson Mandela, acknowledges the crowd at a rally in Glasgow, 9 October 1993. He had earlier received the Freedom of the City.

Nelson Mandela, a monumental figure in the fight against apartheid and a global symbol of resilience, courage, and reconciliation, left a lasting mark on the world stage. Born on 18 July 1918, in Mvezo, South Africa, his life was marked by unwavering determination, sacrifice, and an unyielding commitment to justice and equality.

After witnessing the racial injustices prevalent in South Africa, Mandela’s activism against apartheid led to his involvement with the African National Congress (ANC), leading numerous non-violent protests. However, the Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960 promoted Mandela to shift towards armed resistance through Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing. Arrested in 1962, Mandela spent 27 years behind bars (18 of which were spent at Robben Island Prison), but used his imprisonment as a platform to emerge as a global symbol, championing the anti-apartheid cause.

Mandela’s 1990 release heralded a new era, leading negotiations that ended apartheid, culminating in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, where he became the nation’s first black president. His presidency prioritised reconciliation and forgiveness, demonstrated in the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that addressed apartheid’s atrocities. His efforts earned global recognition, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, shared with his predecessor F.W. de Klerk. After retiring from politics, Mandela remained dedicated to humanitarian causes like HIV/AIDS awareness and children’s rights.

Nelson Mandela’s legacy embodies perseverance, forgiveness, and unwavering commitment to justice. His life serves as an inspiring and enduring testament to the power of resilience, reconciliation, and the pursuit of freedom. December 2023 marks a decade since Mandela’s death, yet his inspirational actions and words live on. Here are 15 of his poignant quotes:

“I like friends who have independent minds because they tend to make you see problems from all angles.”

(From his unpublished autobiographical manuscript written in prison, 1975)


“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

(Interview with Ted Koppel of ABC News on ‘Nightline’, 1990)


“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

(‘Mandela’ documentary, 1994)

Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie, raise clenched fists as they walk hand-in-hand upon his release from prison in Cape Town, South Africa, 11 February 1990

Image Credit: Alamy / Associated Press / Greg English

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

(‘Mandela’ documentary, 1994)

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

(‘Long Walk to Freedom’ by Nelson Mandela, 1994)


“I am fundamentally an optimist. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

(‘Long Walk to Freedom’ by Nelson Mandela, 1994)


“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

(‘Long Walk to Freedom’ by Nelson Mandela, 1994)

President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, 14 July 1994

Image Credit: Alamy / David Reed Archive

“Lead from the back – and let others believe they are in front.”

(‘Long Walk to Freedom’ by Nelson Mandela, 1994)


“It is in the character of growth that we should learn from both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.”

(Foreign Correspondent’s Association’s annual dinner, Johannesburg, South Africa, 21 November 1997)


“It always seems impossible, until it is done.”

(2001 speech delivered by Nelson Mandela)


“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

(2003 speech delivered to the Nelson Mandela Foundation)

Nelson Mandela during a meeting with Britain’s then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, at a hotel in central London, 24 June 2008. Mandela was in London to attend events celebrating his 90th birthday

Image Credit: Alamy / Associated Press / Dylan Martinez

“Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.”

(From a letter to Makhaya Ntini on his 100th cricket test, 17 December 2009)


“We were expected to destroy one another and ourselves collectively in the worst racial conflagration. Instead, we as a people chose the path of negotiation, compromise and peaceful settlement. Instead of hatred and revenge we chose reconciliation and nation-building.”

(From Mandela’s ‘Conversations With Myself’ book, 2010)


“There can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to helping others without expecting anything in return.”


“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”

(Speech by Mandela in South Africa)

Amy Irvine