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Nelson Mandela's legacy

by Sharpeville Day (21 March)

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To explore the themes of forgiveness and hope, which are at the heart of Nelson Mandela’s legacy.

Preparation and materials

None required, but there are various songs about Nelson Mandela that could be played at the beginning of the assembly (some examples are given at:


  1. Many tributes have been paid in recent months to Nelson Mandela – often focusing in particular on his role as a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation after coming out of prison. Yet not as much attention has been paid to the earlier events in South African history and the brutality of the apartheid regime. It is only when we fully understand what was done to black people in South Africa that we can fully appreciate how extraordinary Mandela’s attitude of forgiveness was.

  2. One of the most infamous events in South African history occurred on 21 March 1960.  On that day, demonstrators had gathered outside a police station in a township called Sharpeville to protest against the pass laws, which severely restricted the movements of black South Africans. Although the crowd was unarmed and peaceful, the police opened fire with live ammunition. At least 69 people were killed, many of them shot in the back as they tried to flee. 

  3. Within the international community, people were angry and outraged at the actions of the South African authorities. The Sharpeville massacre led to an international boycott of South Africa – many countries refusing to trade with or play sport against South Africa until the policy of apartheid was ended. Indeed, 21 March is also now marked by the UN as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

  4. At the time, in South Africa, Sharpeville intensified the divisions and bitter conflict between whites and blacks – and the situation got worse in the decades to come. It was only when Mandela came out of prison on 11 February 1990 that South Africans began to talk seriously about peace and reconciliation.

  5. When he emerged into the bright African sunlight on that day in February, a free man for the first time in 27 years, there was something extraordinary about his appearance.  There was the clenched fist of struggle, the refusal to acquiesce to oppression, but, remarkably, in his eyes were also love and forgiveness. 

    Even in those first moments outside prison, we saw what was to become the defining hallmark of Mandela’s approach over the subsequent 20 years – his warm humanity and compassion, visibly apparent in the smile, the gentleness and dignity of his demeanour. 

  6. The stories that were to emerge of his time in prison – of him befriending his racist prison guards, winning them over them over with kindness and compassion – have served to reinforce the view of Mandela as a man who had an extraordinary capacity to transcend the divisions that define and keep us apart.

    One of the most iconic images of Mandela is of him in a Springboks rugby jersey presenting the World Cup to South African captain, Francois Pienaar, in 1995. The point is that, for black South Africans, Springboks rugby was synonymous with the apartheid system, with the people responsible for Sharpeville and many other atrocities. Thus, for Mandela, as South Africa’s first black president, wearing the Springboks jersey was a powerful expression of forgiveness, of moving on from the past.

  7. On 10 December 1996, Mandela, as president, chose Sharpeville as the place where he would sign South Africa’s new constitution, which guaranteed equality, dignity and human rights for all South Africans, no matter what the colour for their skin. Most people predicted that events like Sharpeville, and many other abuses of human rights, would lead to vengeance and a bloodbath in South Africa. Instead, the country moved from the bloodshed of Sharpeville to the hope of a new beginning – and Mandela’s courage and capacity to forgive made that possible.

  8. At Mandela’s memorial service in December, President Obama said, ‘while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better  . . .  He speaks to what is best inside us  . . .  let us search, then, for his strength – for his largeness of spirit – somewhere inside ourselves.’

  9. Mandela’s legacy to the world is one of hope and forgiveness; his legacy to each one of us is the challenge to be more selfless human beings.

Time for reflection

In many ways, Nelson Mandela embodied the values Jesus spoke about in the famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.43–45, NRSV):

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. 

You love us and forgive us our sins.
Fill our hearts with love and forgiveness for others.

Publication date: March 2014   (Vol.16 No.3)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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