Why is Nelson Mandela so Great?

Okay, I’ll be honest: when I heard that Nelson Mandela had passed away last week, two things initially came to mind: the America’s Next Top Model episode where the finalists visited his prison cell, and that one rugby movie with Morgan Freeman. I’m only human.

My thought process reaffirms that pop culture hasn’t acknowledged Mandela’s accomplishments much—yet everyone still knows his name. If you watch ANTM more than the news, here are a few noteworthy (and chronological) reasons* that explain why he became a figure for political and social justice:

  • During his activist years, he started the law firm Mandela & Tambo. The firm provided affordable legal services to unrepresented blacks in South Africa.
  • After organizing a national workers’ strike, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage.
  • While imprisoned, he earned a Bachelor of Law degree through the University of London.
  • He gained such notoriety as an anti-apartheid figure that multiple countries campaigned for his release.
  • After many failed negotiations, he finally left prison when Frederik Willem de Klerk was elected president of South Africa. (Even cooler is his forgiving attitude about the whole imprisonment thing.)
  • In 1991, he was elected president of the African National Congress (a formerly illegal political party that Mandela joined in 1943).

Nelson Mandela

  • In 1993, he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk for their efforts to end apartheid.
  • After the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, he was elected president of South Africa and published his first book, Long Walk to Freedom (which he mostly wrote in prison.)
  • His support for South Africa’s national rugby team as a catalyst for racial reconciliation inspired the film Invictus.
  • After retiring from politics, he formed “The Elders,” a group of world leaders that works for political and charitable causes around the world.
  • He also founded three foundations: the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. Each promotes a different aspect of his work.

If you feel particularly inspired by this man’s work, consider donating to one of his organizations here. However, many would argue that Mandela’s real legacy lies in teaching us that ordinary people can become extraordinary by shamelessly acting on their beliefs. It’s a lesson we can all identify with—even if you don’t watch Top Model.

*You can find many of these facts in this Biography account of Mandela’s life.



Amanda Suazo, editor, joined BSB in 2010 as the writing guru for the organization’s website, official documents, and documentary before focusing a bit on philanthropy. Now a graduate of Gonzaga University, she is currently an MBA student and freelance writer. Between Zumba classes and downing espresso, you might catch her attempting to be a vegetarian. Find her on Twitter.