A Tribute to Nelson Mandela: An Exemplar and Inspiration to Us All


by Joan Rachlin, JD, MPH, Executive Director

The eight days since Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5 have been among the most inspiring of my life. The words and images that have poured forth from South Africa have caused me to experience several “driveway moments” (defined by NPR as those times when you’re driving along listening to a story, and although you reach your destination, you’re so riveted that you sit in your idling car to hear the piece all the way through).

I have long admired and been in awe of Mandela. In fact, the first protest to which I took my then two-year-old daughter was one urging the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to divest its holdings in South Africa. I also took my 11-year-old son, Micah, and one of his friends to hear Mandela speak at Harvard on September 16, 1998. The boys and I were quite close to the stage, and the combination of feeling Mandela’s aura, hearing his powerful voice, and listening to his profound yet humble words, is among my most enduring and cherished memories.

I thus decided to write this post despite the lack of an explicit link to research ethics, but, as my PRIM&R co-worker, Avery Avrakotos, reminded me, there are echoes of what Mandela stood for in PRIM&R’s own core values. Although our work is only a thin link in the powerful global chain that Mandela created, I am struck by the manner in which both the Belmont principles and our organizational creed reflect his teachings.

Mandela’s life was a paean to ethics, justice, and humanitarian ideals, and he innately embodied so many of the fundamentals on which our field and this organization are based. For example, the Belmont principles of respect for persons, beneficence, and justice were tightly woven into the fabric of Mandela’s life and legacy. His thirst for dismantling apartheid (which literally means “apart-hood”) so that black South Africans could be free of white minority rule represents respect for persons writ large.

His beneficence is legendary, and the example that has awed me most is a story I heard from a guide at Victor Verster Prison, from which Mandela was released after more than 27 years in captivity (20 years of which were spent on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town). I learned that Mandela, when he was told he was to be released the next day, declined to leave until a few days later because he needed time to “thank his jailers for caring for him.”  Mandela even invited a few of those jailers to his inauguration, and later appointed F. W. de Klerk, the last state president of apartheid-era South Africa, to join his cabinet.

Yet another example of Mandela’s beneficence is captured in the film Invictus, which tells the story of his actions following the mostly-white South African team’s victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Finally, his formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is representative of his determination to keep bitterness and conflict at bay despite his many reasons for feeling, or fueling, both.

Nelson Mandela’s every act reflected his commitment to and passion for justice. His speech on April 20, 1964, at the Rivonia Trial changed the course of South African history because of its moral force and the case it made for justice, which of course was to be delayed for him for 27 long years.

I’m grateful that PRIM&R’s core values are also reflective of this once-in-a-generation man. I’ve included our list of values below, with a Nelson Mandela quote on each:

    • Excellence: “There is no passion to be found in playing small—in settling for a life that is less than what you are capable of living.”


    • Community: “Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water, and salt for all.”


    • Diversity: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”


    • Integrity: “If I had my time over I would do the same again. So would any man who dares call himself a man.”


    • Knowledge: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”


    • Respect: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”


    • Social Responsibility: “I hate race discrimination most intensely and in all its manifestations. I have fought it all during my life; I fight it now, and I will do so until the end of my days.”


  • Creativity: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

Although the latter quote is not about traditional forms of creativity, but rather about ways of creative governance, there has been much talk since Mandela’s passing about the art, music, comics, and movies that he inspired. Two poems that I have found incredibly stirring include one written by Maya Angelou six days ago called “His Day is Done,” and another by Elizabeth Alexander titled “A Poem for Nelson Mandela.”  There are also poems that, while not inspired by Mandela, served as a source of comfort and strength for him during his imprisonment such as “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley. Mandela embodied, and often quoted, an excerpt that reads:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

If you’ve made it this far, I would like to thank you for reading Mandela’s extraordinary words. He walked the talk, and I hope to honor him by trying harder to do the same. President Obama urged those at the memorial service for Mandela on December 10 to apply Mandela’s lessons to our own lives—for if we do, it will be a far better world.

Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela. Thank you for inspiring and teaching us. We know that your immortal light will continue to shine brightly.