For decades, South Africans have often referred to Nelson Mandela as "father of the nation." However, since being released from his 27-year prison sentence in 1990, the man born Nelson Rohihlahia Mandela exemplified an importance that outdistanced his country and his own era. In his long walk to freedom, the man referred to by many as Madiba saw his story become history.
Born on July 18, 1918 into the Xhosa-speaking Thembu family in the small village of Mvezo, located in Transkei, South Africa, he was born Rolihlahla Dalibhunga. Commonly referred to as his clan name "Madiba," he studied as a lawyer before getting involved in the political and societal rumblings that concerned his country. Defiant in the face of injustice, fueled by his conviction that blacks should liberate themselves from white minority rule in South Africa, Mandela fought for years to stop the racial discrimination that divided his nation. He led a series of peaceful protests and nonviolent acts of defiance against South Africa's apartheid government — including 1952's Defiance Campaign and 1955's Congress of the People.
In 1960, tension grew against the apartheid regime and a year later, after orchestrating a three-day national workers' strike, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. In 1963, he and 10 of his ANC colleagues were sentenced to life imprisonment for treason, sabotage and attempting to overthrow the government.
Eighteen of his 27 years spent behind bars were served on Robben Island in Cape Town. In his 1994 autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela described how hope helped him through the ordeal. "Some mornings I walked out into the courtyard and every living thing there, the seagulls and the wagtails, the small trees, and even the stray blades of grass, seemed to smile and shine in the sun," he wrote. "It was at such times when I perceived the beauty of even this small, closed-in corner of the world, that I knew that someday my people and I would be free." Equipped with a lion's heart, even while imprisoned, Mandela continued the big fight for a democratic and free society. He was released on February 2, 1990, to much global praise.
In the decade after his release, the question that surrounded him was how, after whites had systematically pillaged and tortured his country, and sent him to prison for nearly three decades, he could be free of rancor. The answer that was "ubuntu."
"Ubuntu," a Nguni Bantu concept that symbolizes humanity and open-heartedness, was the light to the spark of Mandela. "As I walked out the door toward my freedom I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind I would still be in prison," he said after his 1990 release. In the spirit of ubuntu, if you're met with conflict, forgiveness is the path toward freedom. For Mandela, forgiveness wasn't optional — it was necessary. In him lived the spirt of "ubuntu."
Elected president of South Africa in 1994, he spent more than five years in office before stepping down in 1999. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his quest for freedom, Mandela presented the world with the ultimate example of courage, peace, reconciliation and resilience.
As we celebrate 100 years of his life, we look back at some of Madiba's clear and essential words.
"The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall..."
"Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundation of one's spiritual life..."
"There is no passion to be found in playing small – settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living..."
"Courageous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of peace..."
"Man's goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished..."
"Our human compassion binds us to one another – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future..."
"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his 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..."