Three Lessons from Nelson Mandela
Today, on Nelson Mandela's birthday, we celebrate International Mandela Day by doing our part to make the world a better place. Four years ago, at a celebration to mark Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday, President Clinton reflected on the three lessons we can all take from Mandela's life. The text of his speech is below.
Thank you very much Prime Minister, Madiba, Graca, ladies and gentlemen. First let me say, I speak tonight on behalf of all three members of our small family. Hillary, Chelsea, and I, each in different ways, have been blessed to know Nelson Mandela, to be moved by him, to be touched by him. On this, his 90th birthday, we should be grateful for three gifts, and we should respond in kind.
You heard in the introduction that I once had the honor of being a student in this country, at Oxford, almost 40 years ago. I knew then three South Africans: two white, one black. One was a committed supporter of apartheid; he had a very big brain trapped inside a very narrow mind. One, also a white man, hated apartheid, but he could never go home and live according to his convictions. And tragically, the black student could not go home, because he was getting an education and therefore might be a danger to the system.
Once at a party at our home, he literally broke down and started throwing things and screaming in anger, because he felt guilty that he chose the opportunity given at the price of his homeland and his people. All three of them were imprisoned. They were imprisoned because none of them were free.
Nelson Mandela gave 27 years of his life, walked out of prison, and included his oppressors in his government so that they could all be free. He taught us that none of us can ever be free at another’s expense.
The second thing he taught us was how to live a life. We served together as Presidents, and we sometimes had trouble keeping our personal friendship and official roles separate. We would have to play like Presidents half the time. We would talk, he would have his talking points, I would have mine, and unlike most of you I’ve actually seen him mad a time or two.
But he never called me once, not once, without asking about my daughter and Hillary, and how they were, what their lives were like, and what was going on. In the most difficult periods of my life, he asked me to remember that he had survived in prison, because he remembered that no matter what anybody else said or did, no one can take your mind or you heart away. You had to give them up, and no one should ever give them away.
He was always, always trying, first and foremost, to be a good person: to live and love and to give up resentment and anger. Just in his doing so, countless millions of people saw how they too could be better people.
The third thing he has given us in these 90 years is the gift he gave us upon leaving office. First of all, he was quite well aware that the true merit of his life was not tied to his being President of South Africa. He was only too happy to honor the law, the constitution, and the passage of time. He gracefully left office as he had entered it. It is quite a cautionary tale today, in view of other events on the African continent and elsewhere around the world, that the greatest of all our Presidents gladly gave up power knowing that, as with everything else, it has its season.
When he left office, it was almost as if his real work began. He didn’t have to worry about negotiating the fineries of trade details with the President of the United States or anybody else. He went to work trying to save the children of the world beginning in his country and on his continent.
We closed the World AIDS Conference together in 2002 in Barcelona. At the time, there were only 200,000 people in poor countries around the world getting life-saving AIDS medicine. Today, there are well over 10 times as many, thanks in part to what governments have done and in part to what private citizens have done. I have done what I could, because he told me that I should spend my life doing this. He said, “You’d be good at this. You ought to figure out how to get more of these kids on medicine.” I’ve done a lot of things he told me to do, and I probably would have been better off if I’d done everything he told me to do.
So I ask you to remember those three things. He gave up almost a third of these 90 years, because he thought he would never be free until all his people were free. He came out of the prison a better man than he went in, and he continued to work on it every single day. He has taught us how to live our lives. And finally, he has taught us that the power of public good does not require public office; it just requires a well- placed heart and a determined mind.
These three gifts he has given in greater measure than any other living human being. I think we owe him just one thing in return: to try, each in our own way, to honor that legacy by supporting his work and doing our own as best we can, and like him, with a grateful, full heart. God bless you, friend.