1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Changing society

October 6, 2011

"In many aspects, he is my role model." Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela often uses these words when talking about the Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi. There are striking similarities between the two men.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela, center on his 90th birthday in London.
Nelson Mandela is referred to as the Gandhi of South AfricaImage: AP

Ramesh Sharma from the Gandhi Peace Foundation in New Delhi still remembers meeting Nelson Mandela, with his cheerful laughter, affectionate twinkling eyes and white curly hair. As far as Ramesh Sharma is concerned, Mandela is like Mahatma Gandhi: a statesman of international repute and a man whose belief in non-violence impressed the whole nation.

According to Ramesh, Mandela is one of Gandhi's heirs. "It is really exemplary how Mandela channels his anger in a very constructive way. He walked the path of non-violence. In doing so he not only gained the power to overcome Apartheid in South Africa but every single individual came to understand the power of non-violent resistance."

Gandhi and Mandela: The same goals

Mahatma Gandhi mentioned once that he would not be surprised if his ideas were emulated in other parts of the world. With great foresight he predicted that someone in Africa would take up in his ideas. Gandhi himself lived in South Africa from 1893 to 1914, where he worked as a lawyer and published a newspaper for Indians. Gandhi often experienced discrimination and hatred because of his dark complexion. Furthermore, Gandhi and Mandela both spent years behind the bars. Both fought against colonialism.

Nelson Mandela while in prison
Nelson Mandela in prison, counting the days to freedomImage: picture-alliance/dpa

According to Peter Rühe the founder and the head of the Gandhi Serve Foundation in Berlin, "a survey conducted in 1999 on the 'Outstanding Personalities of the 20th Century' shows that it is still possible today to apply Gandhi's ideas worldwide. Gandhi has always placed in the top 10 to 15." Among the names on the list are Nelson Mandela, Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa, Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi. "These are people who have referred to Gandhi in their lives, in their works. This is proof that the ethics of non-violence can be employed successfully against unjust regimes in the post Gandhi era and outside India," Rühe added.

Nelson Mandela and Friedrich de Klerk received Nobel Peace Prize
Contrary to Gandhi, Mandela was able to receive the Nobel Peace PrizeImage: AP

Ready to die for the cause

In a video message broadcasting in 2007 Nelson Mandela said that Gandhi’s ideas had played a vital role in South Africa’s transformation. With the help of Gandhi’s teaching, apartheid had been overcome. Nelson Mandela had been an active member of the African National Congress since 1943 and like Gandhi he had always been ready to sacrifice his life in order to create a just society. "I always treasured the ideals of a democratic and free society, a society in which everyone would live in peace and enjoy equal opportunities. This is the ideal situation that I want to create and something that I really want to transform into reality. If I have to sacrifice my life to achieve such a society then I am ready to die."

Born in 1918, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years behind bars, becoming famous as "number 46664." In prison he received less food than the white inmates and also had to work harder. On February 11, 1990 Nelson Mandela was finally set free. Hundreds of thousands of people celebrated his release. Four years later he was elected President of South Africa in 1994.

Conquering poverty and racial differences

In 2004 Mandela said in a speech that peace can only exist if every individual in a society is wealthy regardless of where he lived and regardless of his social class. Like Mahatma Gandhi, who also tried to overcome the caste and religious barriers in his country, Mandela wanted to reconcile people with each other and to eliminate poverty which divided society. According to Mandela, religion, language and culture should enrich mankind. Until his arrest in 1964 Mandela advocated non-violent resistance – even after the infamous massacre of Sharpville on March 21, 1960, when peaceful demonstrators were shot. That day, 69 people lost their lives, among them many women and children. The event shook Nelson Mandela to the core. In court he said, "non-violent resistance? I thought for a while that it would not work."

Mahatma Gandhi has been an inspiration for many great leaders
Mahatma Gandhi has been an inspiration for many great leadersImage: DW/picture alliance/dpa

Ajay Kumar Dubey, a political scientist at Jawaharlal-Nehru-University, believes Nelson Mandela and Gandhi are both icons. They are extremely important for the image of their own countries. "If South Africa wants to prove itself as an African power, it must show that it has a personality, famous all over the world like Nelson Mandela. He achieved the peaceful transformation of the country and freed it from colonialism. Of course, people try to project him as a kind of Gandhi of South Africa."

In 1993 Nelson Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize. During his acceptance speech he made a very important point. "Development and peace are indivisible. Without peace and international security, nations cannot focus on the upliftment of the most underprivileged of their citizens."

Author: Abha Mondhe (mj)
Editor: Grahame Lucas