Take Mandela at his word

Nelson Mandela at the 46664 concert. His quotes range from the thoughtful, and serious to the quirky and funny. Picture: Rogan Ward

Nelson Mandela at the 46664 concert. His quotes range from the thoughtful, and serious to the quirky and funny. Picture: Rogan Ward

Published Jul 18, 2011


After 27 years of enforced silence, Nelson Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 and proceeded to speak and write, becoming one of the most quoted people in the world.

He is also, according to Sello Hatang and Sahm Venter, the editors of Nelson Mandela - By Himself, one of the world’s most misquoted people too. This means the Nelson Mandela Foundation Centre of Memory is kept busy processing thousands of requests for quotations to be authenticated.

So Hatang and Venter trawled through thousands of public and private papers, speeches, letters, tapes, interviews, manuscripts and diary extracts going back as far as 1948 in a bid to produce an “authorised book of quotations”.

Probably the most famous comes from the speech he made from the dock during the Rivonia Trial in April 1964:

“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 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.”

There are many others.

* On the ANCYL, October 2002:

“It is probably one of the deepest challenges to our Youth League, born out of the liberation struggle, to adapt to accommodate the needs of a more normalised society in its programmes, projects and message.”

* On age, at Codesa, 1991:

“There is one respect in which I am head and shoulders above Mr De Klerk and that is in age.”

* Statements on the 1976 uprising:

“Apartheid is the rule of the gun and the hangman. The Hippo, the FN rifle and the gallows are its true symbols. These remain the easiest resort, the ever-ready solution of the race-mad rulers of South Africa.”

“ From our rulers, we can expect nothing. They are the ones who give orders to the soldier crouching over his rifle; theirs is the spirit that moves the finger that caresses the trigger.”

8 On appearance, from the documentary Mandela at 90, 2008

“I have never liked those shoes with pointed noses.”

* On bitterness, from a letter to Winnie Mandela who was in Pretoria Central Prison, written from Robben Island, August 1970:

“I feel as if I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone and soul, so bitter I am to be completely powerless to help you in the rough and fierce ordeals you are going through.”

But he also said this in June 1993:

“There are countless people who went to jail and aren’t bitter at all, because they can see that their sacrifices were not in vain, and the ideas for which we lived and sacrificed are about to come to fruition. And that removes the bitterness from their hearts.”

* On family, from an unpublished autobiographical manuscript, written on the island, 1975:

“I have often wondered whether a person is justified in neglecting his own family to fight for opportunities for others.”

* On freedom, said at the grave of John Langalibalele Dube, the ANC founding president, on April 27, 1994:

“Mr President, I have come to report to you that South Africa is free today.”

* On freedom of expression, at the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers, Prague, 1992:

“I cannot overemphasise the value we place on a free, independent and outspoken press in the democratic South Africa we hope to build.”

* At the International Press Institute Congress, Cape Town, 1994:

“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”

* At the 10th anniversary of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, Joburg, June 2002:

“South Africa should put the freedom of its press and media at the top of its priorities as a democracy. None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to suggest even faintly that the independence of the press could be compromised or coerced. A bad free press is preferable to a technically good subservient press.”

* On gardening, from Long Walk to Freedom, 1994:

“The Bible tells us that gardens preceded gardeners, but that was not the case at Pollsmoor (Prison), where I cultivated a garden that became one of my happiest diversions. It was my way of escaping from the monolithic concrete world that surrounded us.”

* On the Middle East, in a statement about the signing of the Geneva Accord, November 2003:

“You, the people of Israel and Palestine, must now give the lead to your leaders, taking your societies beyond hatred and fear; recognising the peaceful coexistence between a sovereign and viable state of Palestine and a safe and secure state of Israel is your responsibility.”

* On poverty, at the 75th anniversary of the SACP, July 1996:

“The children who sleep in the streets, reduced to begging to make a living, are testimony to an unfinished job. The families who live in shacks with no running water, sanitation and electricity, are a reminder that the past continues to haunt the present.”

* On racism, from Long Walk to Freedom, 1994:

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of their 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.”

* On tolerance, at Cultural Development Congress, Joburg, 1993:

“ Bridge the chasm, use tolerance and compassion, be inclusive, build dignity and pride, encourage freedom of expression to create a civil society for unity and peace.”

* On voting, Soweto, April 2004:

“Standing on the sidelines, failing to go to the polls is a neglect of the democratic duty. And in our case in South Africa, it can be read to signal disregard for the hard and painful struggles that went into bringing democracy.”

* On work, President’s budget debate, Parliament, June 1996:

“Jobs, jobs and jobs are the dividing line in many families between a decent life and a wretched existence. They are, to many, the difference between self-esteem and helplessness.”

* On retirement, June 2004:

“Don’t call me, I’ll call you.” - Cape Argus

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