Nelson Mandela won South Africa’s presidential election in 1994 after more than four decades of opposing racial segregation in his homeland. Mandela had spent 27 of those years in jail on account of his activism. After becoming President, Mandela had a prime opportunity to exact revenge on the political party that had formerly imprisoned him. Yet instead of settling scores or enjoying the spoils of victory, Mandela pursued policies of reconciliation.

As a symbolic gesture of his intentions to unify the nation, Mandela created a new national anthem. The anthem combined two tunes: Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the favorite hymn of the black resistance movement; and Die Stem van Suid-Afrika, the longstanding national song of the apartheid-era government. Today, whenever South Africans sing their country’s anthem, they give voice to Mandela’s legacy of racial harmony.


1) A Legacy Is Built over a Lifetime

Legacies aren’t formed from a single act; they emerge only after a lifetime. Nelson Mandela was motivated by principles of justice, and he has courageously made sacrifices throughout his life on account of those principles. The strength of his legacy comes from the steadiness with which he promoted his beliefs.

2) A Legacy Is Forged Through Adversity

Nelson Mandela commands respect around the world because he endured so much hardship while struggling for a freer South Africa. A leader’s credibility is gained on difficult ground. People follow leaders, not on account of what they know, but based on how much they care, the extent of which is revealed by the storms of life.

3) A Legacy Is Shaped in Pivotal Moments

In some respects, Nelson Mandela’s first year in office was a greater testament to his vision than his 27 years in prison. As Abraham Lincoln once commented, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Eventually, all leaders encounter key decisions that test the integrity of their values, and the course they take at those critical junctures shapes their legacy.

4) A Legacy Is Transmitted Through Practical Vehicles

Legacies are passed from one generation to another through stories, songs, celebrations, and customs. For example, firework displays on the Fourth of July remind Americans of the political freedoms secured by the Founders of the United States. In a similar manner, South Africa’s national anthem reaffirms that country’s commitment to racial unity, thereby extending Nelson Mandela’s legacy.


What legacy would you like to leave to the next generation? How will you pass on that legacy?

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