Nelson Mandela: Both World Leader and Convicted Criminal

In hearing people talk about the passing of President Nelson Mandela, I’ve noticed that people don’t use the word “convicted criminal” to describe him, presumably out of respect. But “world leader” and “convicted criminal” are both chapters of his story. We act as if one term describes his greatness and the other is a blemish on it. But they are both part of what made him an exceptional leader that came at a point when the world needed him.

Nelson Mandela’s first arrest was in the early 1950s, and he went on to be arrested and convicted on multiple occasions. In U.S. terms, Mr. Mandela was (like some of my favorite people) a “felon” multiple times over. In the U.S., a list of arrests — even for legitimate political activity — can lead to problems ever securing a good job, home or an education. And it generally rules out a future in American politics.

The term “convicted felon” or “convicted criminal” in the U.S. is applied to people for one conviction or twenty, for political crimes or crimes of addiction or of poverty. Then people are judged harshly for a lifetime, as if a criminal record tells you everything you need to know about them. How we use the word “criminal” and how we act on it are ultimately short-sighted and unfair. And we all lose out as a result.

In Mr. Mandela’s case, the ruling white government of Apartheid South Africa locked him up to stop his political activity, and they also bet that labeling him as a “convicted criminal” would invalidate him. Convicting and imprisoning him was supposed to make people forget about him. It was supposed to make people stop listening to him. It was supposed to make him just another criminal black man.

What they didn’t account for was the unrelenting number of Black South Africans who would not be deceived by that label, and who would still listen to and accept Mandela’s wisdom and leadership. They didn’t account for Black South Africans who would connect with people around the world to advocate for this “criminal.”

Mandela did not become president on his own — a nation of people accepted him as a leader and made him a president. For decades, they rejected the label of “criminal” as something an unjust government had placed on him. 

Honestly, many of my friends with previous felony convictions were not convicted for political crimes protesting large injustices. (Like many other people in U.S. prisons, they mostly did stupid and/or hurtful things while in the grip of addiction.) But many of them have the experience of being a prisoner in common with Mr. Mandela. They’ve experienced the isolation, the mistreatment, the separation from their families and for some, the deaths of family members while they were incarcerated.

And like him, they also somehow, miraculously, endured prison and came out wise and compassionate leaders. But many of them still face big barriers in reaching their potential because of the harsh label of “felon” or “criminal” that is attached to them by the people around them.

Before you say, “but Mandela was no common criminal” I want to remind you that in the 60s, 70s and 80s, plenty of people described him as a criminal and as a terrorist for the violent actions of the ANC (such as 80s-U.S. Congressman Dick Cheney). His role as a future president and transformational world leader was by no means assured.

One lesson I take from the story of President Nelson Mandela is that today’s prisoner could well be the next generation’s transformational leader. If the rest of us act that way.

Anyone who has never been in prison can ask ourselves — Do I go along with the myth that a person who has been incarcerated would not be a great employee or neighbor or leader? Do I hear the label “criminal” and take it as if that judgement is negative and permanent? Because if so, we need to think about how we can do better.

I look forward to the day that “convicted criminal” is not seen as a blemish. (Meantime, I generally use the phrase “formerly incarcerated person” or “person with a previous felony conviction.”) I continue to work for a community where no one is judged for life by the fact that they have a previous felony conviction, and that they can still reach the greatness they are capable of — whether in their family, community, or country.

The world has lost a giant in President Nelson Mandela — someone whose achievements are nothing less than making the world turn on its axis differently. I find myself a little sad, although I also think that he gets to rest after a long life of service to his country, his people and the world.

Thank you, President Mandela, and thank you, South Africa, for showing us how to recognize and facilitate great leadership from someone who was once labeled “a criminal.”

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