The man who was arguably the world’s most famous prisoner passed yesterday at the age of 95. Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid views and during his time behind bars, he contracted tuberculosis but still managed to get a law degree through correspondence courses with the University of London. After his release in February of 1990, Mandela eventually went on to become a Nobel Peace Prize winner and South Africa’s first black president.

Nelson Mandela was, of course, a highly quotable man, but out of the myriad of his inspirational writings and utterances, I’ve specifically focused on the ones relating to imprisonment, freedom, and redemption. So, in celebration of a life well-lived, here’s a round-up of the Nelson Mandela quotes that best speak to prisoners and prison reformers:

  1. “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
  2. “I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”
  3. “In my country we go to prison first and then become President. ”
  4. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
  5. “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
  6. “The authorities liked to say that we received a balanced diet; it was indeed balanced — between the unpalatable and the inedible.”
  7. “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
  8. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
  9. “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”
  10. “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

What’s your favorite? Is there one I missed? Speak out in the comments section below or click here to make contributions to Mandela’s legacy.


8 thoughts on “Nelson Mandela: A Life in Quotes (for Prisoners)

  1. Excellent write-up, Keri! There’s not much I can add here, other than that Mandela lived long enough to see himself immortalized on screen by two of the greatest actors of our time: Morgan Freeman in Invictus and now Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which I suspect will now get a HUGE push towards Oscar nomination in light of recent events in addition to Elba’s acting ability.

  2. Here’s another Mandel quote I found:

    “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background or his religion. People 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.”

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