Tribute to Nelson Mandela: Five ways his leadership changed the world

Yesterday, when Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95, the world mourned. Mandela changed us by changing his country, and by embodying a changing story — from revolutionary to ruler, he modeled healing leadership with determination, grace and consistency. From the beginning, chosen to be the figurehead of the anti-Apartheid movement, Mandela embodied change. Here are five ways that change manifested.

First, he changed the world because he was the face of democracy in South Africa, representing the many activists who sacrificed their lives to break Apartheid oppression. Partly because of his role and status,  South Africa achieved international  respect and support.
From the Nelson Mandela Foundation website

From the Nelson Mandela Foundation website

Jacob Zuma’s moving tribute speaks eloquently to his role as a nation builder. “Nelson Mandela was the the founding president of our nation… His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world. his humility, his compassion and his humanity earned him their love. [For South Africans,] he was the one person, who, more than any other, came to embody their sense of a common nation.”

Second, he enlisted the world in supporting South African democracy, and changed many nations as a result. Activist awakened, were trained, and continue to work for justice because of the international movement for justice he represented.

Again from Zuma’s tribute: [Mandela stood also for] “the millions of people across the world who embraced Matiba (his nickname) as their own, and who saw his cause as their cause.”

One of my first activist alliances was with the divestment movement to remove financial support for the Apartheid government. This movement swept across college campuses in the 1980s, and spread nationally. According to CNN, “it was a national issue — black, white, male, female, people on the left and right, everybody was involved in it. In 1986, Rep. Ron Dellums, D-California, sponsored a bill that called for a full trade embargo against South Africa as well as divestment by American companies. The bill, which passed the House, was vetoed by then-President Ronald Reagan. Congress then overrode the veto.

Today, this type of activism — financial boycotts — have become a protest staple. For example, fast food workers called this week for a boycott of their respective restaurants to protest low wages.”

Third, Mandela came to stand for the core humanity of leadership, an almost spiritual quality, a combination of patience and persistence.

Again from Zuma’s tribute: “What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human, so in him what we seek in ourselves and in him we saw so much of ourselves. As we gather to pay our last respects, let us conduct ourselves with the dignity and respect that Madiba personified.”

Whatever his private life might have been, his public presence was one that inspired and taught. He became a call to action, and a reminder of the leadership possible for each of us. If he could stand for justice, then we could — and although he lived what seems like a mythic heroism, he also modeled the humanity of that leadership role.

99ba8fb9-d524-4b67-9505-f18179d036abFourth, Mandela made African issues universal, bringing the complexities of race and culture into our consciousness in such a way that we could unite against oppression in general.

Zuma said it well: ” Let us reaffirm his vision of a society in which none is exploited, oppressed or dispossessed by another. Let us commit ourselves to strive together, with strength and courage to build a united non-racial non-sexist and democratic South Africa.”

These values fuel many movements, and Mandela is held up as an example, much like Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King. He is an icon that becomes alternatively a flashpoint for activism and a voice of common sense in the face of fear of change.

Finally, Mandela had the courage to sacrifice personal comfort as a leader who, above all, served the Anti-Apartheid movement. Over the years, revolutionary violence and war became revolutionary service. He is a symbol of leadership in the service of justice, a role model for those of us who want to be of service. Perhaps we are not willing or able to make the same sacrifices, but as a symbol and historical figure, he reminds us service is necessary and transformational.

AP: Mourners celebrating his life in South Africa

He once said: “What counts in life 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.” — Nelson Mandela

In fact, long ago he became a symbol more than a man — perhaps inevitable after such a long life in the public eye, and certainly strategic. This symbolism is what we remember at his death, a moment when we make even ordinary men heroic, and heroes like Mandela even larger-than-life.

His official funeral will be held on December 15.


  1. […] a reflection on his passing, and a tribute to his life, click here. (“Five Ways Mandela’s Leadership Changed the […]


  2. […] in their own time, they inspire many emotions — fear, joy, envy. They hold a difficult place, leading change in cascading shifts, not just in their own countries or […]


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