Civil Society

Here are 11 of Nelson Mandela’s most inspirational quotes

South African President Nelson Mandela greets supporters during a celebration of the 84th birthday of his ruling African National Congress (ANC) January 8.

The words of wisdom Nelson Mandela spoke throughout his life form part of his enduring legacy. Image: REUTERS/Juda Ngwenya

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article was first published in July 2019 and most recently updated in July 2023.

  • 18 July is Nelson Mandela Day, marking the day of the late South African president's birth.
  • In 2023, the Nelson Mandela Foundation is calling on the world to "use your hands to do good in the world".
  • Here are 11 of Nelson Mandela's most inspirational quotes.

Nelson Mandela would have been 105 on 18 July 2023 – and this December marks a decade since he passed away.

South Africa’s first Black president, the anti-Apartheid hero, and Nobel laureate – known affectionately as Madiba and Tata – was born on 18 July 1918, and died in 2013, aged 95.

Nelson Mandela with World Economic Forum Founder and Executive Chairman Professor Klaus Schwab in Davos, 1992.
Mandela joins World Economic Forum Founder Klaus Schwab in Davos in 1992. Image: World Economic Forum

Every year since 2009, the Nelson Mandela Foundation has marked his birthday with Mandela Day, to carry on his work and inspire others to take action against poverty and change the world.

This year's theme is #ItIsInYourHands. The Foundation is asking people to "use your hands to do good in the world" and help to end hunger and mitigate climate change by planting trees and food in their local communities, cities, gardens and pavements.

The aim is for one million trees to be planted around the world on #MandelaDay2023.

President Nelson Mandela addresses a rally in this township near Pretoria, June 25.
Nelson Mandela addresses a rally in June 1995. Image: Juda Ngwenya/Reuters

Nelson Mandela's best quotes

The words of wisdom Mandela spoke throughout his life form part of his enduring legacy. Here are just 11 of his best quotes:

1. Be passionate

“Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.”

2. Nothing’s impossible

“It always seems impossible, until it is done.”

3. Lead from the back...

“Lead from the back – and let others believe they are in front.”

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4. Exercise

"I have always believed exercise is a key not only to physical health but to peace of mind."

5. Make a difference

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

6. Be optimistic

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

A supporter holds a placard with the face of the late Nelson Mandela during a rally in South Africa.
A supporter holds a Mandela placard during an ANC rally in May 2019. Image: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

7. Learn and teach

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

8. Make mistakes

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

Image: WEF

9. Don’t waste time

“We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

10. Choose your friends wisely

“I like friends who have independent minds because they tend to make you see problems from all angles.”

11. Love others

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

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