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ANALYSIS: Mistakes about Madiba - even by himself

Quotes by South Africa’s first democratic president Nelson Mandela are popularly cited.

Some of the most widely quoted verified quotes come from Mandela’s speech from the dock as part of his defence in the 1964 Rivonia trial. His speech upon his release from prison in 1990 together with his inauguration speech from 1994 are also quoted extensively, senior researcher at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Sahm Venter and senior archivist, Razia Saleh, told Africa Check.

But some quotes routinely attributed to Mandela were not actually his words. Venter and Saleh helped Africa Check to identify a few.

Did Mandela really say that?


1. “Our deepest fear…”

One of the more widely used misattributions is a quote from American author Marianne Williamson who said: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

While people tend to think Mandela said these words during his inauguration speech, Saleh and Venter told us that, to the best of the foundation’s knowledge, Mandela never said it. Williamson herself has acknowledged in communication with the foundation that the quote was her words.


2. “When a deep injury is done to us…”

Another quote often misattributed to Mandela, as well as South African author Alan Paton, is the remark that “when a deep injury is done to us, we do not heal until we forgive”. These words are actually an adaptation of the last journal entry of one of the victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting in the United States. Mary Karen Read wrote: “When a deep injury is done us, we will never recover until we forgive.”


3. "There is no easy walk to freedom”

Some people have also attributed a statement by the first prime minister of independent India that "there is no easy walk to freedom” to Mandela.

Saleh told Africa Check that Mandela adapted a Jawaharlal Nehru quote for his 1953 Presidential address to the African National Congress’ Transvaal conference. He said: “You can see that ‘there is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow (of death) again and again before we reach the mountain tops of our desires’”.

But these words were (in a slightly different form) from Nehru’s 1939 “From Lucknow to Tripuri” article to be found in his collected works “The Unity of India”.


4. “Inde lendlela esiyihambayo”

Even a South African minister has fallen prey to Mandela misquotes. State security minister David Mahlobo incorrectly attributed a struggle song to Mandela in a parliamentary address earlier this year.

“Building a truly united non-racial non-sexiest democratic and prosperous society is a long and arduous journey which our former president Nelson Mandela spoke of when he said, I quote, ‘inde lendlela esiyihambayo’”. (Note: The isiZulu words mean “the road we walk is long”.)

But the foundation has no record of Mandela saying these words that are contained in a well-known struggle song, Saleh and Venter said.

Mistakes about Mandela (even by himself)

Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is the source of some of the most common mistakes about Mandela.

“Every book has mistakes,” Venter said but added that the foundation is in talks with publishers to get the mistakes corrected.


1. He wore a leopard-skin kaross to court (it was jackal-skin)

While Long Walk to Freedom holds that the kaross Mandela wore to his 1962 trial for incitement and leaving the country illegally was made from leopard-skin, his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela confirmed that it was jackal-skin, in fact. She lent the kaross to the foundation where it is on display.


2. His father died when he was 9 (he was 12)

Another mistake in Long Walk to Freedom is the date of Mandela’s father’s death.

The published version of Long Walk to Freedom places Mandela’s father’s death in 1927 when Mandela was only 9 years old. But the original manuscript, written whilst still a prisoner on Robben Island, stated correctly that his father died in 1930 when Mandela was 12.

“That is a mistake that has been used over and over again,” Venter told Africa Check. The foundation has historical evidence that corroborates the 1930 date.


3. He spent 27 years on Robben Island (it was about 18)

Other misconceptions that Saleh and Venter have come across is that Mandela spent all of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island. His incarceration was actually spread out over 4 different prisons and 3 hospitals.

5 August 1962 Arrested near Howick, KwaZulu-Natal
7 November 1962 Convicted of incitement and illegally leaving the country. Sentenced to 5 years in prison, which he started serving in the Pretoria local prison.
27 May 1963 Sent to Robben Island maximum security prison
12 June 1963 Returns to Pretoria local prison
3 December 1963 Rivonia trial: Charged for sabotage
12 June 1964 Rivonia trial: Sentenced to life imprisonment
13 June 1964 Arrives at Robben Island maximum security prison
31 March 1982 Transferred to Pollsmoor maximum security prison
3 November 1985 Admitted to Volks hospital in Cape Town for prostate surgery and discharged on 23 November.
12 August 1988 Admitted to Tygerberg hospital in Cape Town where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Discharged on 31 August.
31 August 1988 Admitted to Constantiaberg MediClinic in Cape Town for tuberculosis treatment. Stayed 98 nights.
7 December 1988 Transferred to Victor Verster prison near Paarl
11 February 1990 Released from Victor Verster prison



4. He was released from Robben Island (it was Victor Verster prison)

Mandela being released from Robben Island is also a myth. While fellow Rivonia trialist Govan Mbeki was released from there in 1987, Mandela was set free from what is now known as Drakenstein correctional centre near the town of Paarl in 1990.


5. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in the “Rivonia treason trial” (these were 2 separate trials)

Another mistake people tend to make is to refer to the 1964 Rivonia trial as the “Rivonia treason trial”. Venter pointed out that this is a mix-up of the 1956-1960 Treason trial, where 156 political leaders were charged, and the 1964 trial when Mandela together with eight others was convicted of sabotage.

Run your quotes through the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s quotes database before you tweet or post. This will ensure that the words you are quoting were indeed said or written by Mandela.

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