Forgiveness will liberate you: the lesson of Nelson Mandela

The United Nations today celebrates International Nelson Mandela Day, a day to remember the South African leader who fought and defeated Apartheid. For UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Mandela is an example that inspires us to improve the world. Central to Mandela’s civil struggle was forgiveness, a theme that puts him in particular harmony with the Teachings of Pope Francis.

By Alessandro Gisotti

“It is only permissible to look down upon someone if we are about to bend down and help them get up.” This phrase, which Pope Francis has repeated several times, describes particularly effectively what was witnessed by a great man of our time, Nelson Mandela, whose International Day the United Nations is celebrating today on the day of his birth.

In his non-violent civil battle, in his commitment as a “dreamer who never gives up,” as he liked to describe himself, Mandela demonstrated precisely that no one is superior to another because we all have the same dignity. And it is precisely for this reason, to use an expression dear to Pope Francis, that “no one is saved alone.” For the South African leader, who had paid for his ideas of justice and equality with 27 years in prison, white domination over blacks was not acceptable, but neither was the opposite.

That is why, when he finally became a free man again on 11 February 1990 and, a few years later, was elected President of his country, he radically rejected any temptation of revenge on the part of the blacks and instead embarked on a courageous process of reconciliation and healing of the deep wounds that Apartheid had inflicted on the South African people. This commitment earned him the Nobel Peace Prize and still makes him – nine years after his death – one of the most inspiring figures for new generations. 

As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted in a message for this year’s Nelson Mandela Day, the South African leader “showed that each and every one of us has the ability – and responsibility – to build a better future for all.” For everyone. Not just for one side. Because, as one of his most quoted statements recalls, ‘It is so easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build.’ But what enabled Mandela to endure being deprived freedom for almost 30 years of his life and then to be that peacebuilder that everyone admired and continues to admire? Forgiveness. 

Certainly Madiba, as he was called in his home tribe, did not come to forgive his torturers effortlessly, it was not a ‘cheap’ conquest. He himself confided that in the first moments after leaving prison, anger was his predominant feeling. But it was at that key passage in his life (and in the history of South Africa) that, as he recounted, he heard this admonition from the Lord: ‘Nelson, while you were in prison you were free, now that you are free, don’t become their prisoner.’ Mandela thus decided not to remain trapped in the past, to let the bitterness go. He was aware, as he later stated, that “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.” 

Who knows what Mandela would say today about Pope Francis’ statement that forgiveness must be considered “a human right, because we all have the right to be forgiven.” His daughter Makaziwe already gave us an indication of this in an interview with Vatican Media last December. To a question from us on what was the greatest teaching she received from her father, she replied: “That nobody is born hating another because of the color of their skin, culture or religious belief – we are taught to hate and if we are taught to hate, we can also be taught to love because love comes naturally to the human spirit.”