What Nelson Mandela Taught Us About Human Rights


Nelson Mandela took the impossible and made it flesh. He took down an entrenched system of white supremacy and, against all odds, shepherded a scarred country into democracy. Mandela recruited the international community, once a staunch ally of apartheid South Africa, to be an auxiliary in this extraordinary fight.

Mandela’s ability to build a global movement against racial oppression — and to win — should remind us that the brutal realities of the world we live in are not set in stone. Though today’s crises — civil wars in Syria and Central African Republic, grinding global poverty and disease — may seem like things over which the world has no power, Mandela’s life says otherwise. The moral rules of the world politics, the ones that say suffering abroad are “not my problem,” can be changed by people of great moral vision and activists convinced of the rightness of their cause.

It’s easy to forget that apartheid was once a contentious issue in global politics. The anti-apartheid movement’s first big victory, a 1962 U.N. General Assembly resolution establishing a Special Committee Against Apartheid, was not followed by any action in the vastly more powerful Security Council. The State Department is admirably frank about the reasoning: “Defenders of the Apartheid regime” in the West “had promoted it as a bulwark against communism.” The United States, Britain, and other capitalist states saw South Africa as a useful ally, apartheid be damned.

By 1986, the international scene had changed entirely. Every one of South Africa’s most significant trading partners had placed onerous sanctions on the South African government, and the pressure was immense.


The global anti-apartheid movement, which took “Free Mandela!” as one of its most famous slogans, is of course responsible for this sea change. This loose network of Third World governments, activists, artists, and ordinary citizens, organized boycotts, pushed sanctions, and lobbied legislators to turn the Afrikaner government into a global pariah.

These activists succeeded, political scientist Audie Klotz writes, despite the fact that “the interests of great powers did not substantially change.” The world began moving against apartheid well before the end of the Cold War. Rather, Klotz’s research suggests, it was a “consensus around racial equality” as a defining moral norm of global politics, which began taking hold in the late 60s, that eventually turned the West against South Africa. The victory Mandela and the activists he inspired fought for was won by changing people’s beliefs about what was right.

When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he told the world that “the sanctions that have been imposed by the United Nations and by individual governments should remain in place.’’ The reason, he suggested, was to avoid ‘’any situation in which those who are opposed to change in our country find encouragement to resist change.’’ The sanctions, for Mandela, were power he could wield: they demonstrated that, when he spoke to Afrikaner leaders, he spoke with the weight of the world behind him.

That the global community could, by deciding that racism was no longer acceptable in its ranks, provide freedom fighters like Mandela with such a weapon demonstrates the power of people to organize in the face of grave injustice, even to help people very much unlike themselves. It shows that it’s not hopeless naiveté to believe that people of great moral vision like Mandela can inspire the rest of us to practical action that to improve people’s lives.

The world could not fight black South Africans’ battles for them, and the “white savior” narrative in which the world, rather than Mandela and the ANC, principally ended apartheid is both false and terribly narcissistic. But recognizing the power of the world to develop a moral expansive consciousness, and the ability of that consciousness to allow people to help each other, is not the same thing. “We’re all moved,” Mandela said in that post-prison address, “by the fact that freedom is indivisible, convinced that the denial of the rights of one diminish the freedom of others.” His life, and the great global good it inspired, is proof that these words are not empty.