Nelson Mandela 1918-2013: From Revolution to Reconciliation

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

We are pleased to dedicate our 100th post here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life to the memory of Nelson Mandela, who died this Thursday, December 5, at the age of 95.

In his younger years, Mandela gained notoriety as a divisive figure: a socialist revolutionary aiming to overthrow the harsh apartheid regime that ruled South Africa. But Mandela will not be remembered as a socialist revolutionary.

He spent twenty-seven years imprisoned under a life sentence on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government. And though his time in prison molded him into the person he was to become, Mandela will not be remembered as a political prisoner.

He was released from prison in 1990 under mounting international pressure, during a time of severe and increasing civil strife in South Africa.

Then began the events for which he will be remembered.

In 1994, as the first black president of South Africa, Mandela held the reins of power in his hands. He had seen the bloodshed and the civil and economic destruction that ravaged many African nations when their black majorities overthrew the ruling white elites. Despite the oppression under which he himself had suffered, he chose a different course.

This is what Nelson Mandela will be remembered for. He will be remembered as the man who led his nation toward multiracial democracy after years of racism and oppression. He will be remembered as the man who, having tasted violence and bloodshed, and having every reason to choose the path of revenge, chose instead the path of forgiveness and peace.

He will be remembered as the former revolutionary who led his country to reconciliation, and showed the entire world that constructive peace and understanding among former enemies is both possible and achievable.

Perhaps his greatest testament is that at his death, he was mourned equally by blacks and whites in his own country, and by people of every race throughout the world.


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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3 comments on “Nelson Mandela 1918-2013: From Revolution to Reconciliation
  1. Thanks, Lee, for your post on Mandela, who has to be honoured by the world in these days.

    I do, however, have some doubts on two points in your post:

    First, whether his change (from revolutionary to reconciliator) was so great… Mandela never changed much in his ideas, as far as I can judge – he was a revolutionary, in the sense that he viewed a society in which color did not matter and everyone should have equal rights, and he was also a socialist in the sense that he was inspired by the memories of his elders of ancient African society in which possession was no reality (see some citations from his famous speech for the court in the sixties in this post of mine – ). Violence, I think, was to him only necessary in a situation that was so violent as apartheid was, and never a goal in itself. In that sense he was not like the ordinary revolutionary, who puts the old dictator aside to continue a like rule of their own. His goal was a change in society – to realise a just society, and in the nineties, with all the respect he had gained by how he handled his imprisonment, he could take the peaceful road – so he did, prudently, as it is the one which has the better prognosis of creating a sustainable peace among old enemies.

    Secondly, whether he will or will not be remembered as a socialist revolutionary will depend on where you are. A lot of young people in Africa, fed up with their leaders who do not care about the poor and are puppets of global capital, revere those old revolutionary leaders who were all murdered, like Sankara, Cabral, Lumumba. I bet they love the revolutionary Mandela all the better as he made the change and lived – partly due to his greatness, but also to the fact that the Cold War had come to an end, and the West did not fear African countries to become allies of the Sovjet Union any more…

    • Lee says:

      Hi Angela,

      Thanks for your thoughts. You are probably right that Mandela retained his socialist and revolutionary views to the end of his days. However, what distinguishes him from your average socialist revolutionary, and what changed the course of history in South Africa and made it different from other revolutions in Africa, was Mandela’s dedication to reconciliation rather than the conquest and marginalizing (or worse) of his former enemies.

      This, I think, derives neither from socialism nor from the impulse to revolution, but ultimately from spiritual roots.

      It is also true that the end of the Cold War made possible events that might not have been possible otherwise. Mandela was in the right place at the right time. Even so, as we see in many recent and current revolutions in Africa and the Middle East, even in this post Cold War era, revolution characterized by armed violence and oppression of former ruling minorities is still quite common, no matter what political label is attached to them.

      I believe that what lifted Mandela out of the mere political and military approaches of so many revolutionaries and socialists was the dedication to and practical application of higher principles of forgiveness and reconciliation that transcend both socialism and capitalism.

      I am sure that socialists and revolutionaries around the world will claim Mandela as one of their own, remember him that way, and attempt to take credit for what he did. But I believe he went beyond political principles to spiritual ones. I believe it was his spiritual roots rather than his political ones that made the difference. And I believe that in the broader world (outside the circles that agree with his particular political views), he will be remembered neither as a socialist nor as a revolutionary, but as a peacemaker.

      • I agree about the spiritual impulse, Lee, and I would add that I think that there is a spiritual impulse in political activism, even though it may slip into violence along the way (and loose its good orientation), and that, indeed, it is the great thing of Mandela to see that impulse and act from it even more in later life. May that be an inspiration for other political leaders, from which political colour they are.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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