Nelson Mandela’s Legacy of Civility

Nelson Mandela, Voting in 1994
Nelson Mandela voting in 1994, in South Africa’s first multi-racial election. Photo by Paul Weinberg, via Wikimedia Commons.

All too often we underestimate the power and virtue of civility. You just want us all to be nice, folks say – as if there is anything wrong with that. But civility is about so much more than manners or mood. It is about so much more than politeness or political correctness. Civility is about intentionality and hard work.

It takes intentionality and hard work to choose courses of action that are difficult and often unpopular. It takes intentionality and hard work to put the common good above personal agenda, anger, frustration, greed, or fatigue.

Civility’s payoff, however, is huge. And there is no better example than Nelson Mandela.

A hero in life, the choices Nelson Mandela made and the leadership he displayed helped achieve a peace and a future for South Africa that no one had ever even dared to dream, much less act upon. His example and legacy sets the standard for statesmanship and selflessness.

How tragic if we only admire him, and do not follow his example.

Among the Quotes of the Month the Institute has sent out to our members over the years are several from Nelson Mandela.

Go and speak to your enemies. (But know that) you cannot change someone else unless you first change yourself….

I am not a saint, unless you define a saint as (being) a sinner who keeps on trying.

Over and over Mandela encouraged the rest of us to believe that we can make the same kind of choices that he did, with results that would be just as magnificent. He never pretended that those choices would be easy – only that they are essential.

It always seems impossible, until it is done.

If we would honor the man with more than words, we will work for a culture of mutual respect and cooperative effort rather than one of polarization and personal gain. The stakes are high. The choice is ours. Join us.

— Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, Institute co-founders

On the Passing of Nelson Mandela

BBC News is reporting this evening that Nelson Mandela has died.

Mr Mandela, 95, led South Africa’s transition from white-minority rule in the 1990s, after 27 years in prison.

He had been receiving intense home-based medical care for a lung infection after three months in hospital.

In a statement on South African national TV, Mr Zuma said Mr Mandela had “departed” and was at peace.

Mandela was imprisoned in 1962, having been convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the white-minority government of South Africa. According to The Raw Story, he remained on a US terror watch list until 2008, and was once described by late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the leader of a terrorist organization (The African National Congress).

But that is not his legacy. After his 1990 release, Mandela worked closely with the South African government to negotiate a peaceful end to apartheid and establish racially inclusive elections. According to Fox News, in 1993 he and President Frederik Willem De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1994, at the age of 75, he was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa.

Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela
Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela in 1992. Via Wikimedia Commons and the World Economic Forum

Today, Nelson Mandela is a figure whose legacy unites leaders around the world, from all ends of the political spectrum. In the United States, upon news of his death, Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner called Mandela an unrelenting voice for democracy, a testament to enduring faith in God and respect for human dignity, and a champion of peace and racial harmony.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tweeted: In a way, Mandela was both the “George Washington” and “Abraham Lincoln” of his country. We’re so fortunate to have lived in his time.

And President Barack Obama called him a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

Both in his personal story, and in what he has come to mean to people around the world, Nelson Mandela illustrates the triumph of civility. And we here grieve for his loss.