The Elders

Nelson Mandela

“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.”

Founder of The Elders

“This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes. Together they will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.” 

Former President of South Africa

“I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”

Nobel Peace Laureate

“It is so easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build.” 

Nelson Mandela biography

Former President of South Africa and Nobel Peace Laureate; a leader who dedicated his life to the anti-apartheid struggle, democracy and equality; founder of The Elders.
  • First President of post-apartheid South Africa 1994-1999
  • Nobel Peace Laureate 1993
  • Founder of The Elders and Honorary Elder
  • Imprisoned for 27 years for his role in the anti-apartheid struggle
"This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes. Together they will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair."
  • Founding The Elders

    Nelson Mandela founded The Elders in Johannesburg on his 89th birthday, 18 July 2007. With the help of Graça Machel and Desmond Tutu, he brought together ten ‘Elders’ – independent, progressive leaders committed to building peace and advancing human rights – to work together on solutions to global problems, from climate change to violent conflict.

    In a speech officially launching the group, he called on The Elders to act as “a fiercely independent and robust force for good, tackling complex and intractable issues - especially those that are not popular.”

    After founding The Elders, Nelson Mandela retired and ceased to play an active role. He remained an Honorary Elder until his death in December 2013, and continues to be the inspiration behind The Elders' work.

  • Anti-apartheid hero

    One of the world’s most revered statesmen, Nelson Mandela led the struggle against South Africa’s apartheid regime and was eventually elected President in the country’s first non-racial elections in 1994. Fondly known in South Africa by his clan name ‘Madiba’, he remains an inspiration to people around the world fighting injustice and oppression.

    Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943 and led national anti-apartheid activities throughout the 1950s. He was repeatedly banned, arrested and imprisoned by South Africa’s apartheid government and became part of the underground resistance movement, often travelling abroad to generate support for the anti-apartheid struggle.

  • Political prisoner

    Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to five years in prison. While in prison he was also charged with plotting to overthrow the government by violence. During the Rivonia trial, as it came to be known, Mandela made one of his most famous statements:

    “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

    In 1964 Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment and incarcerated on Robben Island. He spent the next 27 years in prison, but remained an influential leader of the anti-apartheid struggle throughout his time in jail. As international pressure on the apartheid government increased, Nelson Mandela was able to begin a dialogue with the apartheid government in 1985 before negotiating his eventual release in 1990.

  • Freedom and presidency

    After his release from prison, Mandela stepped up to lead his people’s liberation struggle, becoming leader of the ANC in 1991. In 1993, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, then President of South Africa, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa."

    In 1994 he was elected President in South Africa’s first non-racial elections – the first time that Mandela himself was able to vote in his own country. He served a five-year term.

  • 67 years working for a better world

    After stepping down as President in 1999, Mandela continued to work to advance peace, health and human rights in Africa. He was particularly active in campaigning on HIV/AIDS, and facilitated peace negotiations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi.

    In 2009 the United Nations adopted Nelson Mandela International Day in celebration of his life and legacy. Mandela Day takes place on 18 July – Nelson Mandela’s birthday – each year. The aim of the day is to encourage all of us to spend 67 minutes of our time giving back to our community, just as Mandela spent 67 years of his life working for a better world.

View all articles by Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

(1918-2013) Founder

Former President of South Africa and Nobel Peace Laureate; a leader who dedicated his life to the anti-apartheid struggle, democracy and equality; founder of The Elders.

Martti Ahtisaari

Former President of Finland; Nobel Peace Laureate and expert in international peace mediation, diplomacy and post-conflict state building.

Kofi Annan


Former UN Secretary-General, Nobel Peace Laureate and Chair of The Elders (2013-2018); put development, human rights, the rule of law, good governance and peace at the top of the United Nations agenda.

Ban Ki-moon

Deputy Chair of The Elders

Former UN Secretary-General, former South-Korean Foreign Minister and diplomat; he sought to give voice to the world’s poorest and vulnerable people by putting Sustainable Development Goals, climate change, and gender equality at the top of the UN agenda.

Ela Bhatt

Elder Emeritus

The ‘gentle revolutionary’; a pioneer in women’s empowerment and grassroots development, founder of the more than 1 million-strong Self-Employed Women’s Association in India.

Lakhdar Brahimi

Former Algerian freedom fighter, Foreign Minister, conflict mediator and UN diplomat; an expert in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction.

Gro Harlem Brundtland

First woman Prime Minister of Norway; a medical doctor who champions health as a human right; put sustainable development on the international agenda.

Fernando H Cardoso

Elder Emeritus

Former President of Brazil; implemented major land reform programme, reduced poverty and significantly improved health and education; an acclaimed sociologist and global advocate for drug policy reform.

Jimmy Carter

Elder Emeritus

Former President of the United States, Nobel Peace Laureate and veteran peace negotiator; dedicated to advancing peace, democracy and health worldwide.

Hina Jilani

Pioneering lawyer and pro-democracy campaigner; a leading activist in Pakistan's women's movement and international champion of human rights.

Ricardo Lagos

Former President of Chile; tenacious fighter for democracy and human rights; implemented health reform; and reduced economic inequality while diversifying Chile’s external trade in the era of globalisation.

Graça Machel

Deputy Chair of The Elders

International advocate for women’s and children's rights; former freedom fighter and first Education Minister of Mozambique.

Mary Robinson

Chair of The Elders

First woman President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; a passionate, forceful advocate for gender equality, women’s participation in peace-building and human dignity.

Desmond Tutu

Elder Emeritus

Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Nobel Peace Laureate and Honorary Elder; a veteran anti-apartheid activist and peace campaigner widely regarded as ‘South Africa’s moral conscience’.

Ernesto Zedillo

Former President of Mexico who led profound democratic and social reforms; economist and advocate of multilateralism, inclusive globalisation, nuclear non-proliferation and drug policy reform.

The Elders are independent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.

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