Nelson Mandela: How did a violent person win the Nobel Peace Prize?

Nelson Mandela is famous for becoming the first Black President of South Africa. And for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. But did you know that he was imprisoned for terrorist acts?

Mandela started out on his freedom struggle getting inspired by Gandhi. But then the South African government made nonviolent protests illegal. 69 people died in the Sharpeville Massacre in March of 1960 when the government crushed down the peaceful demonstrations with force.

This was the turning point that made Mandela realize that nonviolence alone wouldn’t be enough. And he masterminded the “uMkhonto weSizwe“ (MK) – the spear of the nation. A military wing whose mandate was “to hit back by all means to defend our people, our future, and our freedom.”

The MK started sabotaging government installations. They took out power stations and other institutions and burned government farms. Mandela also traveled to Egypt and Algeria and Ghana to drum up support and to find trainers to help them.

The South African government, with the help of the American CIA, managed to capture Mandela and a few other MK leaders in August of 1962. 

During the court case, Mandela, like a few of his associates, could have said he was not guilty. Or he could also have made a plea deal and get away with a light sentence. But instead, Mandela made a 4 hour statement. He made his famous “I am prepared to die” speech. And he was given a life sentence in prison!

For years, he was put up in a 8×8 cell. And was allowed just one visitor every 6 months. His photos were banned in the whole nation. He was constantly harassed by prison wardens. But Mandela kept his head high.

Rejecting freedom

In 1985, due to rising violence in South Africa, president Botha made an offer to Mandela: he could be released after 22 years in prison. All Mandela had to do was unconditionally reject violence as a political weapon.

Mandela could have easily become a free man. But he rejected the offer. He knew that by accepting the offer, he would hurt the African National Congress’s long struggle. So he stuck to his principles and accepted continuing his life sentence in prison. “Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.” 

Mandela posited that he would only renounce violence when the government renounced violence.

Time after time, Mandela made a personal sacrifice for the greater purpose.

When Mandela was finally released in the 1990s, people were actually surprised by how pacifist he was. He became the face of forgiveness and new beginnings.

Things in South Africa could have gone as wrong as they did in Zimbabwe. Where the white population were afraid of their lives and fled the nation. But Mandela got them on the table and assured them of their safety. He encouraged racial harmony and helped build a nation that was home for all Africans, disregarding their history and skin colour.

It’s easy to get lost into the obvious: that Mandela used violence. It’s only when you understand his mindset do you understand why he is one of the most worthy persons to have received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mandela was termed as a terrorist. But he didn’t use violence to bring terror. He used it to protect his people. You can be the most pacifist person in the world, but if your kids are put in harm’s way, what do you do? 

Mandela was the consummate parental leader. He considered everyone his to protect. 

Protection: the basic need of people

Simon Sinek, the motivational speaker and consultant talks about a few basic things that people need. 

  1. We want to feel protected.
  2. We want to feel like we belong.

People will follow you everywhere if you fulfill these basic needs. 

When it was needed to protect, Mandela picked up weapons. When it was needed to unite, Mandela went out of his way to make the minorities feel like they belonged to Africa too. That they would be protected. And that’s what changed the trajectory of South Africa as a nation. That’s what made South Africa the most developed nation on the continent.

Sinek differentiates between authority figures and real leaders. There are people you follow because you are afraid of losing your job or getting punished. But you will only do the bare minimum for these authority figures. On the other hand, for the real leaders, you will give it your all. You will go beyond your call of duty.

You will sacrifice for them. Because you know that they would do the same for you. 

As Sinek says: real leaders eat last. They make sure their children have enough before them. And because of this, they are revered.

Action Summary:

  • The leader who shows that he will protect his people no matter what his personal costs may be will be followed to the ends of hell.
  • As a leader, you need to go out of your way to make people feel like they belong.
  • The way of the leader is service and sacrifice. Leaders eat last.