Nelson Mandela’s most inspiring quotes

What could be more inspiring than the words of Nelson Mandela! Nelson Mandela was one of the major figures of the 20th century, an icon in matters of freedom and human rights. His writings and his speeches are notable for their declarations that people have been listening to and reading throughout the entire world for decades. To help you to absorb the words of wisdom of the great man Mandela, I made a selection of his most beautiful and famous quotes for this article! Before reading them, let’s look back at the unique destiny of this South African man…

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela: a life of struggle for freedom

Who was Mandela before he became an emblematic figure?

Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in Mvezo, in the Cape Province of South Africa. He was a member of a royal family of the Xhaso tribe. His tribal name was “Madiba”. He received the first name Nelson when he started school.

His father was a village chief who was stripped of his position by the colonial authorities. He died when little Madiba was just nine years old. When she became a widow, his mother, who was his father’s third wife, moved to a neighbouring village. The inhabitants of this village adopted a “western” way of life. Here the teenage Mandela began to become aware of the oppression of black people by white people.

Madiba was the first person in his family to go to school. At the age of twenty-one, he began art studies, but he was expelled from the university during his first year. He returned to his native village but ran away again shortly after to escape an arranged marriage.

A “true” marriage, his first, was to Evelyn Mase a few years later. He became father to two sons and a daughter. After thirteen years of marriage, the couple eventually divorced. Mandela married his second wife in 1958. She was Nomzamo Winnifred, better known under the name of “Winnie” Madikizela. They had two daughters together.

After 38 years of marriage, Mandela divorced again. His third wife was Graça Machel, the widow of Samora Machel, former President of Mozambique.

Nelson Mandela and his second wife, Winnie Mandela

Nelson Mandela and his second wife, Winnie Mandela

Mandela’s entry into politics

After leaving his native village, Mandela moved to Johannesburg where he began to study law after trying a number of jobs.

He obtained his degree in law in 1942. After his studies, Nelson Mandela became a member of the African National Congress (ANC), a political party that fought peacefully against racial segregation and the political domination of the white minority.

In 1943, when apartheid had been official policy in South Africa for 30 years, Nelson Mandela entered politics. He created the Youth League of the ANC in 1944. He also founded the first firm of black lawyers in South Africa.

Thus began the long and famous political journey of Nelson Mandela: we now know that he would go on to become the most famous leader in the history of the fight against apartheid and racial discrimination.

Nelson Mandela’s 27 years of imprisonment

All these years of actions and the fight against apartheid led to numerous arrests and trials involving Nelson Mandela.

The trial that changed his life most radically was the Rivonia trial. It began in 1963 and ended in 1964 with Mandela being sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage, treason and conspiracy.

Madiba entered the hell that was Robben Island prison. In this notorious prison, the tall, burly activist lived in a tiny cell measuring 2.5 meters in length. All he had were a stool, a bucket and a few blankets. He slept on the floor.

His detention on Robben Island lasted eighteen years. All day, every day, Nelson Mandela was forced to break rocks. However, during his years of incarceration, Mandela did not abandon his beliefs. He refused to publicly renounce the anti-apartheid struggle in exchange for his release.

During his years in detention, the prison system tried to weaken him, to attack him psychologically and to isolate him. But Mandela remained certain that one day he would be free again. This hope strengthened his determination.

It turned out that Nelson Mandela was right to believe. After twenty-seven years under extremely harsh conditions of imprisonment, his destiny took a new and exceptional direction…

Robben Island prison

Robben Island prison

A reversal of fortunes in Mandela’s life: three incredible events!

The release of Nelson Mandela

Between 1986 and 1988, Mandela’s circumstances began to improve significantly. He was placed under house arrest. Finally, on 11 February 1990, after strong international pressure on the white government of South Africa, Nelson Mandela was released!

A few months later, in June 1991, apartheid was definitively abolished in South Africa. That same year, the Government of the Rainbow Nation – the name given to post-apartheid South African society – legalised the ANC. Mandela became Chairman of the party and he led the negotiations during the transition period.

Nobel Peace Prize

Nelson Mandela was in favour of reconciliation and negotiations with the Government. On 15 October 1993, he received the Nobel Peace Prize along with the President at the time, Frederik de Klerk, for jointly and peacefully putting an end to the regime of apartheid and laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.

The first President of the black Republic of South Africa

In 1994, when the first multiracial elections took place, Nelson Mandela’s ANC party won by a large majority (62.6% of the votes). That same year, Mandela became President of the Republic of South Africa. He held this position for five years. With his Government, the new president introduced democracy. Mandela led a policy of equality for all South African citizens in the eyes of the law and promoted reconciliation between whites and blacks in a country deeply divided by centuries of colonialism and apartheid.

One of the symbols of this reconciliation and racial unification was the subject of the famous film “Invictus”. (It was named after the title of Nelson Mandela’s favourite poem written by William Ernest Henley in 1875, meaning “invincible”). Clint Eastwood directed the film, and it starred Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. It tells the story of the victory of the national rugby team of South Africa at the World Cup in 1995.

In 1999, Nelson Mandela gave up his seat as president to Thabo Mbeki.

His final years spent serving humanity

After he retired from political life, Nelson Mandela remained involved with several associations leading the combat against poverty and AIDS. He was an ardent defender of human rights. He founded the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013 in Johannesburg from a respiratory infection at the age of 95. The South African Government decreed 10 days of national mourning. Ceremonies took place all over the country to pay tribute to the former president.

His death led to outpourings of sympathy around the world.

Mandela: a great man who inspired the world

A symbol of humanism and tolerance

As a defender of freedom and human rights, an icon for peace and a leading light in the fight against racism, Nelson Mandela became a renowned and honoured figure around the world.

Several books, films and musical works have been devoted to his life and struggle. Museums, squares, streets, gardens and schools bear his name, and statues stand all over the world, paying tribute to this exceptional man. His face appears on South African banknotes since 2012.

South Africa Money

The United Nations declared 18 July (Mandela’s birthday) an International Day to honour Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela’s most well-known books

There are far more books about Nelson Mandela than books he wrote himself. In reality, the majority of his quotes originate from his speeches and statements.

However, Mandela did leave us some remarkable works. The most well-known are the following:

  • Long walk to freedom, 1994

This autobiographical story was published in the same year as the first multiracial elections in South Africa. These elections were a long-held dream of Nelson Mandela and they led to his election as President of the Republic of South Africa. Mandela talks about his life from his early childhood to becoming president.

  • Conversations with myself, 2010

This book is a collection of notes and correspondence, which show the man in a more intimate light, beyond the legend that he represents.

  • Nelson Mandela by himself: The authorised book of quotations, 2011

This book brings is a collection of more than 2000 quotations and statements by Nelson Mandela.

  • Dare not linger, Nelson Mandela’s presidential memoir, 2018

These posthumous confessions tell the story of Mandela’s time as president and the compelling story of a country in transition. It reveals some of the challenges that Nelson Mandela had to face to lead South Africa to freedom.

  • The prison letters of Nelson Mandela, 2018

This book, published after Mandela’s death, is a collection of 255 letters, mostly unpublished, chosen from among the hundreds and hundreds of letters written by Madiba during his 27 years of imprisonment. He wrote them to his wife Winnie, his children and grandchildren, to governments and official authorities, to his companions in the struggle. These writings offer an exceptional insight into how Mandela lived during his time of isolation.

Nelson Mandela’s most inspired quotes

Nelson Mandela quotes about freedom

  • “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.”
  • “A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor.”
  • “I have walked that long road to freedom.   I have tried not to falter; and I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
  • “The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.”
  • “The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
  • “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me.”
  • “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.”
  • “Freedom without civility, freedom without the ability to live in peace, was not true freedom at all.”
  • “Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.”

Nelson Mandela quotes about poverty

  • “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.”
  • “Poverty is not natural.  It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
  • “There are so many men and women who hold no distinctive positions but whose contribution towards the development of society has been enormous.” “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”
  • “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
  • “The curious beauty of African music is that it uplifts even as it tells a sad tale.  You may be poor, you may have only a ramshackle house, you may have lost your job, but that song gives you hope.”

Nelson Mandela quotes about education

  • “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
  • “Think with your brain, not with your blood.”
  • “The power of education extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation-building and reconciliation.”
  • “Young people must take it upon themselves to ensure that they receive the highest education possible so that they can represent us well in future as future leaders.”
  • “The very right to be human is denied every day to hundreds of millions of people as a result of poverty, the unavailability of basic necessities such as food, jobs, water and shelter, education, health care and a healthy environment.”

Nelson Mandela quotes about courage and determination


  • “I never lose. I either win or learn.”
  • “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
  •  “It always seems impossible until it is done.”
  • “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. “ “I had learned that character is measured in difficult situations and that a hero does not fold, even in the most difficult circumstances.”
  • “Prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all a test of one’s commitment.”
  • “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. “
  • “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. 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.”
  • “Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.”
  • “Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark and grim, who try over and over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliation and even defeat.”

Nelson Mandela quotes about failure and success

  • “Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
  • “It is in the character of growth that we should learn from both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.”
  •  “None of us, acting alone, can achieve success.”
  • “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.”
  • “Victory in a great cause is measured not only by reaching the final goal.  It is also a triumph to live up to expectations in your lifetime.”
  • “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living. “  “When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace.”
  • “Money won’t create success, the freedom to make it will.”

Nelson Mandela quotes about peace and goodness

  • “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
  • Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life.”
  • “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
  • “Take it upon yourself where you live to make people around you joyful and full of hope.”
  • “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.” “Evil is not born. It’s made.”
  • “Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”
  • “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”
  • “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
  • “Where people of goodwill get together and transcend their differences for the common good, peaceful and just solutions can be found even for those problems which seem most intractable.”
  • “Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going.”

Nelson Mandela quotes about apartheid and the human rights struggle

  • “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.”
  • “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”
  • “The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days.”
  • “I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity.  No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion.”
  • “A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a point, one can only fight fire with fire”
  • “Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose.”

Quotes about Nelson Mandela’s philosophy and his vision of leadership

  • “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”
  • “It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.”
  • “The best weapon is to sit down and talk.”
  • “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
  • “Men who take great risks often suffer great consequences.”
  • “A leader…is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”
  • “A new world will be won not by those who stand at a distance with their arms folded, but by those who are in the arena, whose garments are torn by storms and whose bodies are maimed in the course of the contest.”
  • “A conscious, awake and standing individual is more dangerous to the power in place than 10,000 sleepy and frightened individuals.”
  • “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
  • “We must work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.”
  • “Spiritual weapons can be effective, their impact is often difficult to assess, except in the light of experience. In a sense, they transform the prisoner into a free man, the commoner into a monarch, the mud into gold.  To put it bluntly, it is only my flesh and bones that are stuck behind these thick walls.”
  • “Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose.”

Nelson Mandela quotes about politics and justice

  • “If you are not prepared to compromise, then you must not enter into, or think about, the process of negotiation at all.”
  • “No organisation whose interests are identical with those of the toiling masses will advocate conciliation to win its demands.” “Success in politics demands that you must take your people into confidence about your views and state them very clearly, very politely, very calmly, but nevertheless, state them openly.”
  • “Politics can be strengthened by music, but music has a potency that defies politics.”
  • “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
  • “People come and go. Customs, fashions and preferences change. Yet the web of fundamental rights and justice which a nation proclaims must not be broken.”
  • “I consider myself neither morally nor legally obliged to obey laws made by a parliament in which I am not represented.”
  • “I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience.”
  • “It is in your hands to make of our world a better one for all”

Nelson Mandela quotes about personal development

  • “At night, our cell block seemed more like a study hall than a prison… Robben Island was known as ‘the University’ […] because of what we learnt from each other”.
  • “One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others.”
  • “Allow your dreams to change reality, but don’t let reality change your dreams.”
  • “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.”
  • “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”
  • “One of the most difficult things is not to change society — but to change yourself.”
  • “There can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to helping others without expecting anything in return.”
  • “We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?”
  •  “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
  • “Exercise is the key not only to physical health but to peace of mind.”
  • Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair.
  • “As I have said, the first thing is to be honest with yourself.  You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself… Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.”

Extracts from the film Invictus

  • “Their goals did not make them criminals, simply the means they used to achieve them.”
  • “We need inspiration. Because in order to build our nation we must exceed our own expectations.”
  • “Forgiveness liberates the soul.  It removes fear.  That is why it is such a powerful weapon.”
  • “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Taken from the poem “Invictus” written by William Ernest Henley.

Poster for the film Invictus

What about you? What’s your favourite Nelson Mandela quote? Why not share that quote in the comments and tell us what you find powerful for change about it!

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