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Nelson Mandela quotes: ‘Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people’

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, has died. Here are his thoughts on freedom, equality and how he would like to be remembered

Nelson Mandela, who led South Africa from apartheid to democracy, was a humble, eloquent and inspirational figure who advocated peace, democracy and human rights. Here are some of his quotes which mobilised a movement and made him an icon to millions.

On dreaming big

“One day I will be the first black president of South Africa.”
– 1952

On freedom

“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain tops of our desires.”
– 21 September 1953. Presidential address to ANC conference, adapted from a statement by former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru

On resistance

“The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days.”
– 26 June 1961

On sacrifice

“If I had my time over I would do the same again. So would any man who dares call himself a man.”
– November 1962. Mitigation speech after being convicted of inciting a strike and leaving the country illegally

On equality

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons 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.”
– 20 April 1964. Rivonia trial

On adversity

“Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.”
– 1 February 1975. Letter to Winnie Mandela

On authority

“I have never regarded any man as my superior, either in my life outside or inside prison.”
– 12 July 1976. Letter written to commissioner of prisons while on Robben Island

On apartheid

“Between the anvil of united mass action and the hammer of the armed struggle we shall crush apartheid and white minority racist rule.”
– June 1980

On compromise

“Only free men can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”
– 10 February 1985. Reply to an offer to release him if he renounced violence

On being a man of the people

“I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I, and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.”
– 10 February 1985. Message from prison, read by his daughter to a rally in Soweto

On sacrifice

“I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free.”
– February 1985. Response to the offer of freedom from PW Botha. Remark quoted in A Part of My Soul Went With Him by Winnie Mandela

On his release

“Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
– 11 February 1990. Speaking on his release from Robben Island from the balcony of Cape Town city hall

On humanity

“Since my release, I have become more convinced than ever that the real makers of history are the ordinary men and women of our country; their participation in every decision about the future is the only guarantee of true democracy and freedom.”
– 1990. The Struggle is My Life

On lost time

“I never think of the time I have lost. I just carry out a programme because it’s there. It’s mapped out for me.”
– 3 May 1993

On vigilance

“If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.”
– July 1993. Speaking to South Africa’s trade union congress

On the anti-apartheid movement

“I had no specific belief except that our cause was just, was very strong and it was winning more and more support.”
– February 1994. Visit to Robben Island

On a free press

“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”
– February 1994

On the South African elections

“Years of imprisonment could not stamp out our determination to be free. Years of intimidation and violence could not stop us. And we will not be stopped now.”
– 26 April 1994. Press conference

On becoming president

“My fellow South Africans, today we are entering a new era for our country and its people. Today we celebrate not the victory of a party, but a victory for all the people of South Africa.”
– 9 May 1994. Speech following his election to the presidency, Cape Town

On the future

“The task at hand will not be easy, but you have mandated us to change South Africa from a land in which the majority lived with little hope, to one in which they can live and work with dignity, with a sense of self-esteem and confidence in the future.”
– 10 May 1994. Speech at his inauguration as president

On death

“Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.”
– 1994. Interview for the documentary Mandela

On poverty in South Africa

“In South Africa, to be poor and black was normal, to be poor and white was a tragedy.”
– 1994, Long Walk to Freedom

On morality

“Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”
– 1994. Long Walk to Freedom

On life’s obstacles

“I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
– 1994. Long Walk to Freedom

On his legacy

“It would be very egotistical of me to say how I would like to be remembered. I’d leave that entirely to South Africans. I would just like a simple stone on which is written ‘Mandela’.”
– 1997

On wisdom

“It is in the character of growth that we should learn from both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.”
– November 1997

On leadership

“Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.”
– April 1998

On being remembered

“There will be life after Mandela. On my last day I want to know that those who remain behind will say: ‘The man who lies here has done his duty for his country and his people.'”
– 1999

On the power of words

“It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.”
– July 2000

On a meaningful life

“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.”
– May 2002

On HIV/Aids

“When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?
– June 2005

On integrity

“Those who conduct themselves with morality, integrity and consistency need not fear the forces of inhumanity and cruelty.”
– July 2003

On humour

“You sharpen your ideas by reducing yourself to the level of the people you are with and a sense of humour and a complete relaxation, even when you’re discussing serious things, does help to mobilise friends around you. And I love that.”
– August 2005

On success

“Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.”
– December 2009. Letter to cricketer Makhaya Ntini

On female attention

“I can’t help it if the ladies take note of me; I am not going to protest.”

On personal weakness

“That was one of the things that worried me – to be raised to the position of a semi-god – because then you are no longer a human being. I wanted to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental, and a man who is committed, but never the less, sometimes he fails to live up to expectations.”