Nelson Mandela’s Lessons for Sustainable Change


I don’t believe in saints, but Jon Lee Anderson’s vision of a seventy-one-year-old Nelson Mandela at Trafalgar Square nearly convinces me that the late leader was one:

The fact that he had emerged as a graceful, compassionate, forgiving individual has had a staggering global impact, earning him a status unlike that of any other living individual—as the world’s only universally recognized living saint.

For all his suffering, for all the negative words spoken about him, for all the ways his story would still be appropriated, Mandela chose the path of forgiveness. He wasted little energy on pointless criticisms of the international community’s failures or open condemnation of his government. Instead, he focused on the peaceful, prosperous, equitable future he was determined to build.

Few of us have been imprisoned for political crimes, but we all have suffered, in our own ways. Our anger – at social inequality, at injustice, at racism and sexism and corruption and exploitation and all the other things that still happen in our world – can be a powerful motivator to fight for change.

But anger quickly grows toxic. When we focus on the thing we oppose, we become nothing more than a mirror for its wrongs. The stakes grow small, zero-sum. Organizations begin to behave like pirates, seeking to plunder other’s ships rather than fish for their own wealth. After all, the rising tide must lift all boats, benefiting the guilty and innocent alike.

In ten years of work on political and social change, I have concluded that peace is only possible when we let go of the need for retribution. Movements that make “justice” their core value can win only by force. They can succeed when they are large and weaponized enough to secure victory, but they create leaders who simply perpetuate the hatreds they claimed to oppose. It’s an us vs. them that ensures nothing will change but the identity of the group in power and the names of those who suffer.

Furthermore, it’s all but impossible for bystanders to join a movement based on anger. The movements that create and sustain a better world always focus on universal values. They present alternatives that outsiders must be openly bigoted not to support. All the world’s greatest leaders – from Martin Luther King, Jr articulating his dream for all children to Nelson Mandela uniting South Africans of all races in the desire for freedom – have chosen the path of forgiveness.

My hope is that, as we reflect on Mandela’s legacy, we do more than merely align ourselves with his “side” of history. To defeat a group using violence, anger, or retribution is merely to join them in their mission to sow division. On the other hand, as Mandela understood, to have them join you is to win once and for all.


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