On his legacy, Mandela said: “What counts 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.” Mandela not only lived, but made a difference in the lives of the human race. That is his irrefutable legacy.


Nelson Mandela, whose birth centenary the world marked this Wednesday July 18, was a mortal. However, in a fractious world governed by class, racial, religious, regional, gender and numeorus other cleavages, it is almost impossible to find a person who is generally accepted by all as a hero and legend. This is the basis of Mandela’s legacy.

This legacy was built on six broad pillars. First, he was born into colonial South Africa, which degenerated further into the Apartheid system. The struggle to decolonise, defeat Apartheid and allow the people exercise their fundamental human rights, threw up Mandela. He believed that: “To deny people their human rights is to deny their very humanity.” His philosophy was that: “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.” So he became an outlaw. That decision could cost him his life. But it was a struggle he believed in and was convinced ultimately of triumph, even if he would not be alive to partake of the victory feast.

The second platform is the collective. He knew that in truth, nobody can overcome a system as an individual. He was convinced that: “No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.” So, he joined the African National Congress (ANC).

The third base was courage and sacrifice. He wrote: “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.” He argued that the choices people make should reflect their hopes, not their fears.

The test of his courage, as well as those of his comrades arrested in 1963, came when they were charged with sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. Facing the death sentence, he told Justice Quartus de Wet: “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 and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

He knew that if South Africans can learn to hate, they can also be taught to love. So he taught them that: “Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace (and) as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”


He and his fellow defendants escaped the death sentence, but were given life imprisonment. He was to say: “Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.” He and his fellow liberation fighters truly made all the human sacrifices possible. Mandela was in jail for 27 years, losing perhaps the most active part of his life, practically lost his marriage and almost lost his family, as he was in prison while his children grew up.

But he was the rejected stone which became his country’s cornerstone. When South Africa needed to transit from war to peace, it turned to Mandela and his courageous comrades. He knew the burden and understood that if he carried the spirit of revenge in his heart, a lot would be lost. He reflected: “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…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.”

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He knew that if South Africans can learn to hate, they can also be taught to love. So he taught them that: “Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace (and) as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

But he was emphatic that the past must be firmly defeated and that the process of freedom must be irreversible: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

It was an optimistic future for South Africa. But like Amilcar Cabral admonished in 1965 during the anti-colonial war in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde: “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.” So did Mandela realise that freedom and liberation would be meaningless if they do not translate to food on the table, roof over the head, clothe on the back, healthcare for the sick and education, at least for the children.

He told Africa and the underdeveloped world: “We need to exert ourselves that much more, and break out of the vicious cycle of dependence imposed on us by the financially powerful: those in command of immense market power and those who dare to fashion the world in their own image.”


Mandela who was elected the first democratic president of South Africa on May 10, 1994 said: “Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.” He correctly posited that: “While poverty persists, there is no true freedom (and) overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity, it is an act of justice.”

He did not limit this to South Africa alone. He linked it to insecurity in the world, arguing: “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.” His basic solution to universal crisis and the crisis of globalisation was: “Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.”

He however recognised the negative role of international capital in denying humanity this basic solution and in enslaving the world. He told Africa and the underdeveloped world: “We need to exert ourselves that much more, and break out of the vicious cycle of dependence imposed on us by the financially powerful: those in command of immense market power and those who dare to fashion the world in their own image.” As part of his challenge to those who hold humanity in vice grip, he openly befriended Cuban hero and international revolutionary, Fidel Castro, whose country played a pivotal role in the military defeat of the Apartheid armed forces in Angola, making the independence of Namibia, and subsequently, South Africa, irreversible. He also solidarised with the Libyan government of Mouammar Ghaddafi by, amongst other actions, breaking the no-fly ban imposed by the West. He said of Africa: “I dream of the realisation of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent.”

On his legacy, Mandela said: “What counts 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.” Mandela not only lived, but made a difference in the lives of the human race. That is his irrefutable legacy.

Owei Lakemfa, former secretary general of African workers is a human rights activist, journalist and author.