Nelson Mandela: Showing by Example

Students consider the leadership of Nelson Mandela by reading and discussing quotes about and by him.

To the teacher:

This lesson focuses on the leadership qualities of Nelson Mandela, who died on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95. For more information and background on the anti-apartheid struggle, including Nelson Mandela's role in it, please see:



Gathering (10 minutes)

Ask students what they know about Nelson Mandela, the South African civil rights leader and the country's first democratically elected president. 
Elicit and explain that Nelson Mandela, who died on December 5, 2013, was born Rolihlahla Mandela, in South Africa on July 18, 1918.  The Xhosa name "Rolihlahla," given to him by his father, literally means "pulling the branch of a tree" which colloquially would more accurately mean "troublemaker."  It was this name that Mandela took to heart as he grew into an activist and civil rights leade: He was to cause the kind of trouble that forces us to think about the world we live in and look for ways to improve it for all. 
Trained as a lawyer, Mandela joined the African National Council (ANC) to fight discrimination and apartheid, a brutal and oppressive system of legalized racial segregation.  With his colleagues, he built political alliances and mobilized large groups of people to engage in various forms of resistance against the apartheid policies of the ruling white minority government in the 1950s and 60s. In 1964, he and other ANC leaders were arrested and convicted of treason.
He famously concluded a speech to the court with the following words: 

"Above all, we [black South Africans] want equal political rights, because without them, our horrible conditions will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes white men fear democracy. But it is not true that the vote for all will result in black domination....The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racism. When we win, we will not change that policy...."

He was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island, a penal colony, where he was forced to do backbreaking labor in the island's lime quarry for 18 years.
While in prison, Mandela's international reputation grew. He became a powerful symbol of resistance as the anti-apartheid movement gathered in strength and support from around the world.  He refused to compromise his political position, his goal of freedom and justice for all, to obtain his own freedom. 
When he was finally released on February 11, 1990, he recommitted himself to the goals that he and his colleagues had set out when they first joined the ANC almost 40 years ago.  In 1991 he became president of the once outlawed ANC. Three years later, in 1994, he became South Africa's first democratically elected president, forming a multiethnic government to oversee the country's transition. 

Nelson Mandela is one of the most revered leaders of our time. In today's lesson we'll look at his leadership,  and why people across the world are mourning his death and celebrating his life.

Leadership web (10 minutes) 

Ask students first to free associate with the word "leadership." Record their ideas graphically on a web chart.  Making webs often stimulates creative thinking. To make one, write a core word, in this case "leadership," in the center of the board or on chart paper and circle it.  Student associations with the core word are written so that they radiate out from the center. Related ideas can be grouped.
Encourage associations while energy is high. Ask open-ended questions to stimulate groups that are having a harder time to get or keep going. As energy tapers off, ask students to read what's on the web and ask some or all of the following debrief questions:

  • What do you notice about the web? 

  • Are there generalizations we can make about what's on the web? 

  • Are most of the associations positive, negative or neutral? 

  • Do you think leadership is mostly positive, negative or neutral?  Explain.

  • Based on this, do you think we need to add anything else to our web?

  • What do you know about how Nelson Mandela fits into our associations so far? 

If it has not come up, it is important to emphasize that leadership does not exist in isolation. It is followers who give leaders their power through their support.  It can also be followers who choose to withhold their support from leaders they do not trust or believe in.   In the case of Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders, they challenged the existing leadership and its racist policies.  This resonated with the majority black population who'd been living under an oppressive white minority rule for centuries. Thousands of the "followers" who were inspired by Mandela were themselves unsung heroes, risking their lives (and sometimes losing them) in the decades-long struggle for justice in South Africa.  
Nelson Mandela was raised to be a leader from a very young age.  He joined with others in his struggle for freedom and justice in South Africa, recognizing the importance of building alliances early on.  Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Price with the last white apartheid-era South African president, F.W. de Klerk, in 1993, Mandela recognized the many people who worked together to combat and ultimately defeat apartheid: "The Nobel Peace Prize" he shared "was a tribute to all South Africans, and especially to those who fought in the struggle; I would accept it on their behalf."

Exploring Nelson Mandela's Leadership  (20 minutes)

Ask students to arrange themselves in a circle.  Cut the quotes at the bottom of this lesson into separate slips of paper.  Place them in the center of the circle (or at the front of the class, if forming a circle isn't feasible). 

Ask volunteers one after the other to step in or come up to choose one of the quotes to read out loud.  Alternatively, print out the quotes as a handout for all and ask volunteers one after the other to read out a quote. 
After each quote, ask students (as a group) to state, and discuss if needed, to what quality (or qualities) of leadership the quote describes.
When all quotes have been read, ask students some or all of the following questions and discuss: 

  • What are your thoughts about Nelson Mandela, having heard these quotes?
  • What were some of the traits you appreciate in Nelson Mandela?
  • What do the quotes tell you about collaborative leadership?
  • How does this kind of leadership relate to other kinds of leadership that you have experienced in your life?
  • Do you know of other leaders who have led in similar ways to Nelson Mandela?  Discuss. 


Closing (10 minutes) 

Play the following homage to Madiba, entitled Savuka Asimbonanga (Mandela).  (Note: Madiba is Mandela's Xhosa clan name, which most South Africans use when referring to him.  It is considered an act of honor in South Africa to refer to somebody by the name of his tribe.)

Alternatively, have students listen to/watch one of the many songs and music videos created by musicians around the world to express solidarity with Mandela and the movement to end apartheid.   These include: 

Finally, take a moment of silence for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, his family, the people of South Africa and all the people who have died and suffered in their quest for freedom and justice around the world. 



Homework (for students who viewed Homage to Mandela)

Find below the lyrics of the song that was playing during the homage to Mandela your students just watched.  Ask students to research Nelson Mandela's life and the South African struggle for freedom and in the process explain what the lyrics in the song refer to.   Mention that there are other names mentioned in the song.  Who were they?  The struggle for freedom in south Africa was a long and difficult struggle led by different people at different times, in different parts of the country.  Many made sacrifices for this freedom, some more famous than others. 
When you next meet, ask your students to share out what they learned.  Facilitate a conversation around the meaning of the song lyrics and the meaning of Madiba's leadership and collective action.  

Savuka Asimbonanga (mandela)

Asimbonanga (We have not seen him)?
Asimbonang' uMandela thina (We have not seen Mandela)?
Laph'ekhona (In the place where he is)?
Laph'ehleli khona (In the place where he is kept)??
Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey?
Look across the Island into the Bay?
We are all islands till comes the day?
We cross the burning water??



A seagull wings across the sea?
Broken silence is what I dream?
Who has the words to close the distance?
Between you and me??
Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge,?Neil Aggett?
'umfowethu thina (we have not seen our brother)?
Laph'ekhona (In the place where he is)?
Laph'wafela khona (In the place where he died)?
Hey wena (Hey you!)?
Hey wena nawe (Hey you and you as well)?
Siyofika nini la' siyakhona (When will we arrive at our destination).


Handout: Nelson Mandela Leadership Quotes:

Nelson Mandela once said: "If you are humble, you are no threat to anybody. Some behave in a way that dominates others. That's a mistake. If you want the cooperation of humans around you, you must make them feel they are important—and you do that by being genuine and humble. You know that other people have qualities that may be better than your own. Let them express them." 

David Turnley, a photojournalist who followed Mandela's life closely and had several opportunities to meet him described Nelson Mandela the day he was released from prison as follows: "Within minutes the door opens and in walks Nelson Mandela, and greets everyone in the room as if he'd known them his entire life. Nelson Mandela's like six feet tall, with wide shoulders and incredible stature and presence. More than that, he has this unbelievable charm and a way of making everyone in the room feel like a million dollars." (Source is no longer active.)

 According to South African singer/songwriter, Lira:  "Madiba [Mandela's Xhosa clan name] was our hope for a change, for a better way of life. ... Madiba became our first black president. ... Under his patient leadership, the transition from an apartheid government to a democratic one was peaceful and reconstructive. He became a beacon, a symbol, somehow more than a man; yet he remained all too human. A new world we knew nothing about lay ahead, but we knew as our trusted father figure, Madiba would lead us. And, lead us he did."  (


According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) which recently published a Nelson Mandela's Life and Times piece, Mandela's "charisma, self-deprecating sense of humour and lack of bitterness over his harsh treatment, as well as his amazing life story, partly explain his extraordinary global appeal." (

On her website Sandy Gluckman writes "As a boy, Mandela was greatly influenced by Jongintaba, the tribal king who raised him. When Jongintaba had meetings of his court, the men gathered in a circle, and only after all had spoken did the king begin to speak. The chief's job, Mandel said, was not to tell people what to do but to form a consensus. "Don't enter the debate too early," he used to say." 

Nelson Mandela said: "No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective."

According to Michael Shear of the New York Times "Mr. Mandela has long been a beacon for Mr. Obama ... Friends of Mr. Obama say that for him and many of his contemporaries, the fight against apartheid was the equivalent of the civil rights movement of an earlier generation [in the US}. ...  Mr. Obama's closest advisers say people do not realize how much Mr. Mandela has been an inspiration to Mr. Obama in some of the president's most difficult moments. Valerie B. Jarrett, a senior adviser and close friend of Mr. Obama's, said Mr. Mandela had given Mr. Obama "the strength to persevere." (

According to Nelson Mandela, "It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur.  You take the front line when there is danger.  Then people will appreciate your leadership. "


In his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom,  Mandela described this idea further by comparing a leader to a shepherd.  "He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind."

On the website Conservative News, contributor Steve Tapping writes: "Reflecting on the moment when he entered Robben Island prison, off the coast of Cape Town, Mandela said, "how you're treated in prison depends on your demeanor." .... Keeping his emotions in check, relations with his captors improved as he sought to "communicate with them in a message that says I recognize your humanity". His official biographer Anthony Sampson argues that, during his 27 years in jail, Mandela was able to develop "a philosopher's detachment," as well as, "the subtler art of politics: how to relate to all kinds of people, how to persuade and cajole, how to turn his warders into his dependents, and how eventually to become master in his own prison."  (

"The collaboration of Nelson Mandela and the [white apartheid era president] F.W. De Klerk catapulted South Africa to the fore of the international community as a ‘miracle' peaceful transition to a constitutional democracy, and all the glories were heaped upon Mandela in person for his magnanimity and for acting as a ‘broad-minded' statesman."  (

"As South Africa's first democratically elected President in 1994, Mandela tackled the challenge of uniting both the country's racial groupings and a fragmented public service whose delivery mandate was skewed in favour of the white population. A significant milestone of the his presidency was the exemplary constitution-making process, which delivered a document that is the envy of the democratic world."  (

Author Martin Kalungu-Banda, says of Mandela: "What is so extraordinary about Mr. Mandela's style and practice of leadership is that it crosses the boundaries of culture, gender, race, religion and age. Madiba (as he is fondly referred to in his home country) has done so in a society that was once more polarized than any other - one the world expected to explode along racial and ethnic lines. That it did not was largely due to this extraordinary man and his unique leadership style. What is equally fascinating about Madiba is the fact that each person that has encountered, in one form or another, his leadership feels personally attended to and served.  ... Great leadership consists in the capacity to inspire others to greatness. I use the term ‘inspire' to mean the ability to bring out the best in the people one is entrusted to work and live with."  (

Speaking from the dock in the Rivonia court room at his trial in 1964, Nelson Mandela said: "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people.  I have fought against white domination.  I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all person live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

John Carlin writes of Mandela's Legacy: "And so it proved. Mandela's wisdom in reaching out to the old enemy, repressing any vengeful impulses he might have accumulated during his twenty-seven years in prison, is the principal reason why South Africa has consolidated its transition from tyranny to democracy, and done so not, in the time-honored style of revolutions, through repression, but by persuasion.  ... The big truth is that Mandela ... achieved the historically rare feat of uniting a fiercely divided country. The feat is rare because what ordinary politicians have always done is seek power by highlighting difference and fueling antagonism. Mandela sought it by appealing to people's common humanity."