By Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Washington, D.C
“It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.” [Nelson Mandela]
Nelson Mandela understood the power of words as well as anyone. He was a lawyer, a writer, and an orator before he was a prisoner or a president. One of the legacies that he has left us is the example of how carefully chosen words can cause more dramatic change than any force of arms.
For 27 years, Madiba inspired his country and the world from a small cell on Robben Island. He had only his speech and his pen to influence others. Even getting his words to the people was a challenge; the first draft of his autobiography had to be smuggled out of prison.
As president, Nelson Mandela faced different pressures than in prison. He could have chosen to use his position and his words to blame others when the challenges became too great. As someone who has spent a lifetime working in diplomacy, I have seen personally the devastating effects when leaders use their speech to encourage division, anger, and violence. Instead, Madiba continued to inspire people by bringing the nation together, even inviting members of the regime that jailed him in his government: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
It is only fitting that we pay tribute to one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders, one whose words inspired the world, through the poetry of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. While imprisoned on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela read the works of Dr. Maya Angelou and they inspired him. At his inauguration in 1994 as the first post-apartheid president of South Africa, he read her poem, “Still I Rise,” which talks about the spirit of a person to continue to rise despite everything that they endure. On behalf of the American people, Dr. Angelou reads a poem dedicated to the South African people expressing sorrow at his passing and gratitude for his contributions not only to their country but also the world.
Note: Dr. Thomas- Greenfield is now assistant secretary of state for African Affairs. The above article was posted on the State Department website on December 6.