December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela: A Great Moral Leader

By Upper Room Books

EDITOR’S NOTE: Upper Room Books pays tribute to Nelson Mandela, the courageous and visionary leader who spent 27 years as a political prisoner, then emerged from prison to lead South Africa from its dark days of apartheid to become a multiracial democracy. Mandela, who died December 5 at age 95, left public life at age 86, but his influence continues. May the spirit of “Madiba,” as he was affectionately called in his country, remain with us all.

entrance to the high-security prison on Robben Island, South Africa

entrance to the high-security prison on Robben Island, South Africa

Nelson Mandela’s leadership in South Africa is a primary reason we study apartheid as history instead of social studies. The power of his character and his strength of will guarantee his name is included with the great moral leaders of the past century with such names as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.  How did this beloved statesman achieve such status?

Sentenced to serve a life sentence for sabotage in 1964, a young Mandela had led the violent wing of his political party (ANC). By actions and words he made it clear that he was ready to die – or to kill – for his political beliefs. And, yet, the young firebrand who went to prison emerged as a moral leader 27 years later because prison served as Nelson Mandela’s graduate school of leadership.

Housed in a small cell, Mandela slept on the floor and used a bucket for a toilet. He spent his days performing back-breaking labor in a quarry. Communication with the outside world was limited. Prison policy allowed only one visitor a year. An annual visit lasted 30 minutes. Mandela could write and receive one letter every six months.

In the cell, in the quarry, in the limited contact with the world beyond prison, Mandela learned self-control, discipline, and focus, three qualities essential to survival in a world where a prisoner has no control over daily life. He paid careful attention to his guards and learned what motivated them, what they would respond to, and how to leverage the smallest commonalities between captive and captor into relationships. He learned all these qualities patiently and well. Mandela then applied these personal skills learned in prison to achieve his life’s singular purpose: freedom from apartheid for people of color.

Nelson Mandela's prison cell

Nelson Mandela’s prison cell

Nelson Mandela was pragmatic enough to use whatever political tools would best serve this cause. His years in prison, his years of suffering, taught him that reconciliation and forgiveness were the best paths to peace and democracy for his country because vengeance and retribution were incongruent with peace and justice. Mandela learned that the ends don’t justify the means; rather, the ends dictate the means.

Countless individuals have accused Jesus of being impractical. “No one can live in the real world and live as Jesus commands,” says the common wisdom. Yet, Mandela took his convictions about forgiveness and reconciliation, which he learned in prison, and led South Africa to adopt them as public policy. Through the political application of the principles he learned in prison, Mandela helped bring about one of history’s most radical shifts in power when his home country adopted universal adult suffrage in 1994.

Whenever history lists the great social sins of the 20th century, the race-defined oppression that divided South Africa will be included. History will also note that apartheid was destroyed by truth, reconciliation, and forgiveness. It was destroyed by a man who learned these principles in prison and was willing to practice them in the very real world.

Joel SniderJoel Snider is pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Georgia. He and his wife, Cherry, have two grown daughters and one granddaughter. He blogs at

Prison images courtesy of Thinkstock.


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