National Geographic Society Newsroom

Nelson Mandela and the Power of Forgiveness

South Africans, and with them many the world over, are mourning the passing of the father of the all-race democracy that came to be known as the “New South Africa”. Children grueved at the loss of their favorite grandfather. It has always been one of the most remarkable features of the life and times of...

South Africans, and with them many the world over, are mourning the passing of the father of the all-race democracy that came to be known as the “New South Africa”. Children grueved at the loss of their favorite grandfather.

It has always been one of the most remarkable features of the life and times of Nelson Mandela that children adored him. It was as remarkable how this man, once reviled as a terrorist and nearly hanged for his actions, and who went on to become the colossus of South African politics, in turn loved children.

The children’s adoration was never more evident than during his last days. They sent him get-well cards telling him how much they loved him and that they prayed for him.

He in turn used to be as happy in their company as they were in his, laughing heartily at their antics and sayings. Even when his legs were barely able to hold him up anymore, he liked joining in their singing and dancing by swaying his arms in what became known as the “Madiba Jive”. Madiba was his clan name by which he became affectionately known to South Africans.

It was with children that he seemed to get closest to letting out that part of his soul which he kept imprisoned deep inside himself.

Infinite Loneliness

On television screens and in meetings with him, people saw the friendly smile and the ease with which, often in his trade-mark floral shirts,  he associated with just about everybody, from the least to the most powerful. But in his book simply titled MANDELA, his biographer, Anthony Sampson, wrote about how “in repose, he suddenly gives a glimpse of another Mandela, with a turned-down mouth and a weary gaze of infinite loneliness, as if the scene around him is only a show. And behind all this gregariousness he still maintains an impenetrable reserve, defending his private hinterland, which seems much deeper than that of other politicians.”

Mandela tried hard to discourage people from seeing him as a saint. “I’m no angel,” he sometimes remarked. It had little effect.

Even his colleagues in the African National Congress (ANC) sometimes reminded South Africans that he was not the lone hero who steered South Africa from white-minority rule to an all-race democracy. They did so in trying to drum up support for the movement, especially when, after his retirement, it was accused of losing the moral compass he lent it. They pointed out that there were many others who had suffered and even died for the cause.

People generally acknowledged this. But it was Mandela who over the past five decades became the towering figure of South African history. It happened despite, and conversely because of, his being locked from public sight for most of that time. Furthermore, it happened because of the way he, as the first president of democratic South Africa, sought to promote reconciliation and put to rest the prejudices and animosities that had pulled South Africans apart for most of their history.

Many supporters of the old apartheid regime, who once denounced him as a terrorist who got his just desserts in being sentenced to life imprisonment, changed their minds. They came to admire and eventually even to revere him.

He became an icon. For many among the voteless black majority in South Africa he already reached that status during the 27 years he spent in jail, most of it on notorious Robben Island off Cape Town, after South Africa’s high court found him and his cohorts guilty on 12th June 1964 of having conspired to violently overthrow the  government.

World’s Most Famous Prisoner

As time wore on and internal resistance and international condemnation of apartheid grew, the world’s attention became increasingly focused on the man hidden in the island prison. As the clamor grew for his release, he became known as the world’s most famous prisoner.

His biographer, Sampson,  also sought to dispel the image of him as a saint, making the point that no saint could have survived in the political jungle for 50 years and achieved such a worldly transformation.

Mandela, he said, had his share of human weaknesses, of stubbornness, pride, naïveté,  impetuousness. And behind his moral authority and leadership, he had always been a consummate politician.

“I never know whether I’m dealing with a saint or with Machiavelli.”

Sampson quoted one of Mandela’s closest colleagues as once telling him: “I never know whether I’m dealing with a saint or with Machiavelli.”

I had a brief encounter  with that Machiavellian streak when as a political writer in Durban in the early 1990s I was on a Saturday afternoon summoned to the presidential home in then Natal, which later became KwaZulu Natal province.

It was at the height of the country’s first all-race election campaign. In that province, torn between the revolutionary ANC and the traditionalist Inkatha party led by traditional chief and KwaZulu homeland leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the violence was out of control. People were dying in battles that raged in the cities and in villages  among the hills and valleys of what is known as South Africa’s garden province.

Buthelezi and his party refused, till the eleventh hour, to participate in the election. There had always been a respectful relationship between the Zulu homeland leader and Mandela, but in the political heat of the time the ANC leader was given to understand he would not be allowed to hold rallies in the Inkatha-controlled province.

Mandela was by then practically co-governing the country with F W de Klerk, the man who released him and unbanned his organization. Instead of turning on Buthelezi, Mandela wagged an admonishing finger at me and the other two journalists present, saying he was not going to have the media write him out of campaigning in the province.

I objected, saying the fact was my paper was getting more complaints about our writings from Inkatha than from the ANC. “Oh,” he responded, “it is not your paper I am talking about. I have heard good things about you.” The journalists from the two other papers tried to say something, but it was clear the conversation was over. Mandela had made sure Buthelezi and his party would get the message.

Steel Combined With Heart

His power as a politician stemmed from a steely will combined with a kindly heart and a deep desire for people to respect each other and get on together. These facets of his character already became evident from the speech he made when he faced a possible death sentence in 1964. He told the court:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

It was this declaration that set him apart and identified his special brand of leadership of the resistance to apartheid.  Much of his legacy can be related back to those remarks that was followed by rejoicing by black South Africans that he and his cohorts were spared the death sentence. Instead, they were shackled and carted off to the island prison.

It was a remarkable rise to prominence of a man whose roots went back to the Transkei, later to become an independent homeland state before its reincorporation into South Africa when apartheid collapsed.

Nelson Mandela was no stranger to the Oval Office and other great offices and palaces of the world. George W. Bush was one of four U.S. Presidents who met the South African leader. Wikimedia Commons photograph by Eric Draper, White House Photographer.
Nelson Mandela was no stranger to the Oval Office and other great offices and palaces of the world. George W. Bush was one of four U.S. Presidents who met the South African leader. Wikimedia Commons photograph by Eric Draper, White House Photographer.


Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in a small village  set among the rolling hills of the scenic east coast region. His father was a chief, but got dispossessed of his tribal authority  by a white magistrate on the grounds of insubordination.

He was nine when his father died. He was taken into the household of the tribal regent of the Xhosa people who impressed him with his ability to keep together the various factions of his people. It was a part of his upbringing that contributed to his presidential style and to his regal manner.

He attended missionary schools in the area before he went to Fort Hare, a small university in the region that catered mainly for Africans and which became the alma mater of a number of prominent political figures also from other parts of the continent.

Aspirations of Becoming an Interpreter

Mandela had aspirations of becoming a court interpreter in the public service but got expelled when, as a member of the students’ representative council he campaigned against the bad quality of the food served in the hostels. When the tribal regent wanted to force him into marriage and make him settle down, he absconded to Johannesburg where he, amongst other jobs, served as a mine guard before joining a legal firm and started studying.

Fed up with the subservient position taken by the ANC leadership of the time, he helped set up a more radical youth movement. It was from there that he gravitated to establishing the ANC’s military wing called Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) and to leading a campaign of sabotage against the white-minority government that resulted in the arrest of him and his cohorts and their conviction.

As the years passed and calls for his release mounted, the government, realizing what a powerful figure he had become in his absence, tried to make deals that involved releasing him in return for conditions such as that he would renounce violence and communism. He chose to stay put. Ultimately he insisted on seeing his fellow political inmates freed before he was prepared to go.

There were deep concerns particularly within the white community as to what he might do when on February 11, 1990 he, in a neat suit and hand-in-hand with his then wife, Winnie, walked through the prison gates. With crowds cheering and television cameras fixed on him, he punched a balled fist into the air in the black-power salute.

Placating White Fears

But the apprehensive section of the nation soon found there was nothing to fear. Mandela went to extraordinary lengths to bring about reconciliation, to the point that there were those among his followers who felt he was leaning over too far.

To placate white fears and facilitate a smooth transition, he entered into a government of national unity with de Klerk. They shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

He invited Percy Yutar to lunch, a Lithuanian immigrant who became South Africa’s first Jewish state attorney,  and who headed the prosecution against Mandela and his co-accused, and who had asked for the death sentence. After their meeting, Yutar spoke of him as “a saintly man”.

Mandela made a courtesy call on Betsie Verwoerd at her retirement home in the whites-only enclave of Orania. She was the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid who was the inflexible prime minister at the time of Mandela’s conviction.  She expressed pleasure for his visit and he for the “typical Afrikaner hospitality” she showed him.

In a scenario that became the theme of a best-selling book and an Oscar-nominated film,  he joined forces with the captain of South Africa’s rugby team, inspiring it to winning the 1995 World Cup and the hearts of countless of the game’s mainly white supporters.

Making Amends

He was president from South Africa’s first multi-racial elections in 1994 till 1999 when his first term expired and he chose to step down. During this time, between being feted locally and internationally, he would invite business people on excursions. They knew the drill. They had to take along their cheque books for the honor. Mandela knew there was a sense of guilt lurking there from having made their fortunes during apartheid rule and having objected not too vociferously to it. There was a way for them to make amends, which was  by way of donating substantial sums to welfare causes, especially involving the care and education of children from less advantageous situations.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has been hailed as one of the most remarkable figures of his era.

There he was, for most of his best years locked away on an island from which he could see Cape Town’s Table Mountain and in the evening the lights come on in that beautiful city where humanity was settling down for fun and later go to bed in their own time.

Yet, he came out singularly committed to turning South Africa into the non-racist society he spoke of in his statement to court in 1964.

He lived by that credo. He personified the power of forgiveness and the best values in humankind.

He was a truly great man.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Leon Marshall
Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won several awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.