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Worst Nelson Mandela Quote Ever

I have a lot of respect for Nelson Mandela on a personal level.[1] He came back from years of imprisonment over his resistance to institutionalized racism and, yet, took an official position of forgiveness and healing over revenge after his release.[2] He said, “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.”[3] He seems to have taken a position of peace against those who did him great harm and to use his short presidency to pacify a complex volatile situation in South Africa. You’ve got to respect that. In fact it is his suffering and emergence from prison to “peaceful” power that has placed a bubble of protection around his image as a political figure in the media.

Honestly, however, Nelson Mandela was an anti-colonial Marxist who joined the South African Communist Party and positioned himself on its central committee. He worked for years in the African National Conference,[4] leading a militant wing of this organization called Umkhonto we Sizwe translated “Spear of the Nation“… for whose activities, he was imprisoned.[5] His fundamental ideologies did not change.

I would like to reflect on an often repeated quote from Nelson Mandela, [6] because it perfectly represents common perceptions of poverty. He said:

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

It sounds nice doesn’t it… I mean, some truly vicious people out there both prefer and promote the poverty of others, that is true. Various regimes over the years have used legal, commercial, and military force to starve, weaken, and annihilate their enemies… to keep the masses powerless and usable. I won’t argue with that reality.

Who wouldn’t be moved with great pity for those victimized by such injustices? …other than the people perpetrating them, I mean.

Imbedded in this quote, however, is a significant and foundational misperception of the reality behind South Africa’s highly complex political and social situation. It is a rudimentary vision of the world, of the human condition, that has a devastating impact on how  people in power use that power… intending good, perhaps, but ultimately harming, not only those deemed guilty, but also those who had the misfortune of being the object of pity by misguided, do-gooding, weapons of mass destruction—politicians addressing sweeping injustices in such a way that the fix is worse than the problem. This is the natural result when fixes are based on seriously flawed visions of human nature and human interaction with nature.

The only hope of a nation that falls under the power of such people is that their leadership is short enough and hampered enough by checks and balances to prevent the ultimate ruin and counter-injustices that their ideas produce.

Let’s consider his quote piece by piece. Whatever the immediate situation of South Africa (and many nations like South Africa), one has to ask, “Are these statements universally true? Are they the truth behind those situations or merely those resting on the surface of those situations?” They are certainly worded as universal truths.

  1. Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity.
  2. Overcoming poverty is an act of justice.
  3. Poverty is like Slavery and Apartheid[7]
  4. Poverty is not natural.
  5. Poverty is man-made.
  6. Poverty can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.

Think on these, and I’ll pick them up again in another blog.


[1] I am not an expert on Nelson Mandela and have only loosely followed his activity since his release. Nor am I an economist, though I have studied some economic and political theory. I shared my thoughts here with a Zimbabwean who spent many years in South Africa during the years of Apartheid and who has followed the policies of Mandela more closely than I have. He gave me a general nod of approval for my sentiments here, though any errors are my own. These are my personal reflections on complex issues.

[2] In truth, however, institutionalized revenge was woven into his politics.

[3] https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/367338.Nelson_Mandela; I have had a rather frustrating journey in attempting to document these quotes from speeches, articles, interviews and books featuring Mandela.

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nelson_Mandela

[5] “During the 1970s and 1980s the ANC…  made the decision to target Apartheid government leadership, command and control, secret police, and military-industrial complex assets and personnel in decapitation strikes, targeted killings, and guerilla actions such as bomb explosions in facilities frequented by military and government personnel. A number of civilians were also killed in these attacks…. The ANC was classified as a terrorist organization by the South African government and by some Western countries including the United States of America and the United Kingdom. … There was violence between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (former communist allies). For example between 1985 and 1989, 5,000 civilians were killed in fighting between the two parties. Massacres of each other’s supporters… The ANC received financial and tactical support from the USSR, which orchestrated military involvement with surrogate Cuban forces through Angola.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_African_National_Congress

[6] I have striven to verify this quote. Although it appears on the websites of numerous organizations and in the dozens of lists of Nelson Mandela quotes, I have not been able to exactly place it. If you can identify its origins please let me know.

[7] One might say that this arrangement is not a fair picture… he merely says that they are alike in regards to being unnatural. I’ll make less of this element of the quote than others, but will address the relationships that I see at work.

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