Nelson Mandela’s ProSocial Moral Disobedience

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

In honour of Nelson Mandela’s life, I thought it would be useful to take a critical look at the sociology of Mandela’s leadership. As the world mourns the death and humanity of Mandela, let’s also reflect on the social bases of Mandela’s courage and strength. This is as an opportunity to better understand how Mandela’s social experiences inspired his search for social justice.

In their excellent study, Davide Morsellia and Stefano Passini draw on social psychology and sociology in order to compare the social and political influences on three world leaders of civil rights movements in three different societies: Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King Jr in America. The researchers argue that these three world leaders engaged in “prosocial moral disobedience” – that is, they actively went against authority despite the personal persecution that followed. They did so not simply due to personal qualities, but as a direct result of their socialisation. Mandela will always be remembered as an extraordinary individual, as will Gandhi and MLK. This post will show that this is not the way these leaders understood their lives and activism. My post will explore how Mandela’s moral development and personal attitudes were affected by social context.

Moral Disobedience

Writing in the journal Peace and Conflict, Morsellia and Passini describe that moral disobedience is distinct from acts of deviance, including delinquency, social rebellion, political defiance, and crimes such as vandalism and violence. Moral disobedience is an act of breaking the law because an individual recognises that the existing rule of law and authority is harmful to social progress. Moral disobedience is not simply about disagreeing with the status quo. It is centrally concerned with inclusivity (human rights for everyone in society) and prosocial behaviour (improving the lives of others, not just oneself or peers).

Morsellia and Passini compare this with other subcultures where people break the law in a way that benefits only themselves, their personal networks or their social group. While civil rights movements are centrally concerned with establishing equality for minority or marginalised groups, they are characterised by values of universal freedom, moral inclusion and social responsibility. This is distinct from other social movements motivated by moral exclusion, such as Nazism, which elevates the rights of one group through institutional oppression and violence towards others.

Mandela, Gandhi & Martin Luther King Jr

Photo via Knots of Stone
Martin Luther King, Jr in his office with a photo of Gandhi on his wall. Photo via Knots of Stone

The researchers conducted a content analysis of the autobiographies of Mandela, Gandhi and MLK – the latter autobiography was edited by Clayborne Carson after MLK’s death. Carson used King’s books, manuscripts, speeches, letters and other autobiographical material written by King. For another point of comparison, the researchers also conducted similar analyses of the autobiographies of authoritarian leaders such as Mussolini and Hitler.

The study examined the themes within these autobiographies, taking into consideration the genre of autobiographical writing. All texts are written with a particular audience in mind, and so they omit or truncate certain life events. Nevertheless, they provide insight into how leaders communicate their life’s message to their followers. Simply put, this is how Mandela, Gandhi and King understood what motivated their social activism. One common feature across these three works is that significant elements of these autobiographies were written during imprisonment. These autobiographies reflect how these leaders sought to inspire others. The researchers show that many of the themes in these autobiographies overlap despite the different social setting and times in which the three leaders lived. These themes correspond with other empirical literature on morality and activism.

Two overall trends emerge. Mandela’s leadership, like the work of Gandhi and King, is dependent on personal interactions that shifted their mindset. This includes the influence of parents and others who expanded their critical thinking during adolescence and early adulthood. Second, these great leaders were influenced by their experiences of social support during times of resistance to persecution.

On the one hand, this might seem common sense: aren’t all people shaped by their society? Doesn’t everyone need social support? In a word, yes, but that’s the point that these leaders reflected on. It’s tempting to canonise outstanding leaders by their personal qualities such as charisma. It makes it seem as if great leaders are super human. That’s not how Mandela wanted the world to know him. Mandela, Gandhi and King understood that it was their social experiences that made them great leaders, not some innate sense of goodness. They were moral because they struggled with the notion of morality. That is, they didn’t take social good for granted. They stood for universal human rights because they encountered people along their lives who pushed them to continually re-examine their personal world view.

On the other hand, there is more to this lesson than meets the eye. Like Gandhi and King, Mandela was a member of a persecuted group, but they were born into relatively well-off families who provided a good support base. Their early childhood socialisation bolstered their education and political consciousness. This is another important point to note. Good leaders are born every day but poor access to social resources, education and institutional processes can make it harder for the world to produce extraordinary leaders. Let’s see why and how this works.

Early Socialisation of a Great Leader

Photo via Wikipedia
Photo via Wikipedia

While all three leaders were socially disadvantaged, a fact that cannot be overemphasised enough, what they have in common is that they were born into middle and upper-middle class families. Their parents were well educated and they supported their education into higher studies.

Gandhi was born into a Hindi family in India, but he went on to study law in London and practised as a lawyer in South Africa. King was born into a devout Baptist family in Southern USA and he completed a Bachelor of Arts in sociology at and he also completed a PhD in theology. He became a Minister like his father and grandfather, both of whom were well respected in their local communites. Mandela was born into a Christian family that was part of the Xhosa tribe in South Africa. Mandela had ties to nobility. His father was the principal counsellor to the Acting King of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. He completed a Bachelor of Arts and then a diploma in law. He subsequently set up South Africa’s first Black-owned law practice.

All three men had strong social and communication skills that served their leadership. As they show, these skills were a direct result of their family life. All three men reflect on having been strongly influenced by their fathers, who are figures of moral strength and who were personally invested in social justice. All three emphasise that their mothers had provided an exceptional moral training, spending a lot of time discussing religious ideals and world philosophies. Their families were well connected to other teachers, artists, intellectuals and other community leaders who further expanded their moral conscience. Mandela’s mother took him to live with at the Great Place palace in Mqhekezweni . He studied under Thembu regent, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, who educated Mandela in his native Xhosa language as well as teaching him on African history, law and socio-political affairs. Mandela writes:

As a leader, I have always followed the principles I first saw demonstrated by the regent at the Great Palace. I have always endeavoured to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion.

In sociology, we call this head start in education cultural capital. Cultural capital is the symbolic resources that help children get a head start in school. Children who have well educated parents or parents who can invest a lot of time, effort and resources are better poised to do well in school. These children are more likely to lead economically stable and productive lives. In these narratives, we can also see elements of social capital. Mandela and his cohort had strong social networks that supported his moral and political growth. Cultural and social capital help with education, but this advantage cannot overcome institutional barriers like racism and discrimination. As Mandela notes:

No matter how high a black man advanced, he was still considered inferior to the lowest white man.

Still, what Mandela’s autobiography shows is that his early political and social justice development was a direct outcome of his socialisation.

Exposure to Alternative Views in Adolescence and Early Adulthood

Mandela, Gandhi and King all place great emphasis on their social influences from adolescence. Across their autobiographies, there are twice as many references to adolescent influences in comparison to childhood influences. This is aligned with the social psychology literature on moral disobedience, which shows the importance of forging horizontal relationships with formative figures (such as friends who expand our ideas of morality) and vertical relationships (such as adults in positions of power, such as teachers).

Mandela discusses the importance of meeting lots of new people at university who expanded his political consciousness. This included seeing Xhosa poet, Krune Mqhayi, speak at his university. Seeing a Black South African speak about politics and position himself as an equal to his White South African professors both “confused” and “galvanised” Mandela. He writes:

I had many new sometimes conflicting ideas floating in my head. . . . I saw that African might stand his ground with white man.

Also key in this phase is interacting with members of the dominant group in an environment where they were free to debate their ideas as equals. Again, higher education enables the development of moral disobedience.

Original photo by Duncan Harris CC. Adaped by OtherSociologist
“It was during those long and lonely years…” Statue of Nelson Mandela. Original photo by Duncan Harris CC. Adaped by

Persecution and Social Responsibility

Mandela spent 27 years imprisoned, with long periods in solitary confinement. Like Gandhi and King, Mandela was jailed for political resistance. All three activists write that they did not think of their jail time as punishment. Instead, imprisonment was an “opportunity to reinforce their activities and their dedication to community goals.” They also cite the importance of their social networks within jail and the support of followers from the outside. They formed deep bonds with their fellow inmates. Their friendships with some of their jailers were also discussed as an important resource. Such friendships with people who held power over them and who belonged to the dominant group facilitated their communication with fellow prisoners. For example, jailers helped them pass on messages. This was especially important for Mandela given his solitude . Mandela writes:

We stayed in the Fort for two weeks, and despite the hardships, our sprits remained extremely high. We were permitted newspapers and read gratification of the waves of indignation aroused by our arrests. . . .We read of protests around the world over our incarceration. Our Communal cell became a kind of convention for far-flung freedom fighters. Many of us had been living under severe restrictions, making it illegal for us to meet and talk. . . .We revelled in the opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences for two weeks while we awaited trial.

This sense of social cohesion with their fellow inmates provided Mandela with psychological determination through adversity. Social support also reaffirmed the leaders’ social responsibility, thereby strengthening their commitment to prosocial moral disobedience. Mandela writes:

In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realised the role I could play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant. I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness, and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues. I realised then and there that I could carry on the fight even within the fortress of the enemy.

Nelson Mandela - I was the symbol of justice. By
“I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor.” – Nelson Mandela. Original photo via Wikipedia CC. Adaped by

Mandela, Gandhi and King all chart their transition from having a general sense of social injustice in their youth, to taking on a growing sense of activism on behalf of their ethnic group in adolescence. Finally, they accept social responsibility for the rest of society after experiencing imprisonment. Mandela writes:

At first, as a student, I wanted freedom only for myself… Later, as a young man in Johannesburg, I yearned for the basic and honourable freedoms of achieving my potential, of earning my keep, of marrying and having a family—the freedom not to be obstructed in a lawful life. But then I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and sisters were not free. I saw that it was not just freedom that was curtailed, but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did… It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became the hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness… The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

Sociological Lessons from Mandela’s Prosocial Disobedience

This study exemplifies that leaders like Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King develop their social conscience and political activism as a direct result of their socialisation. All three men came from families that had high rates of cultural and social capital. That is, they were born into middle to upper middle class families that provided a strong educational foundation and parents who helped groom them about social justice and morality. Their exposure to new ideas at university further expanded their sense of morality, and imprisonment later solidified their social responsibility. These leaders’ interaction with diverse groups begins their quest for the social liberation of all people.

Mandela’s personal life narrative details how progressive social change depends on inclusive social networks and close social ties. Mandela’s prosocial moral disobedience addressed social justice issues for all, not simply his own social group.

Mandela will forever be known as a remarkable leader of tremendous personal integrity and awe-inspiring strength of character. He wanted the world to know, however, that his leadership wasn’t just about his personality or some preternatural inner morality. He understood that his social experiences shaped and strengthened his resolve.

The adage “leaders aren’t born, they’re made” has become a cheap marketing slogan seen on everything from billboards to mugs to shoddy business courses. There’s a germ of truth behind this, but it is not about personal development gimmicks. Mandela’s legacy leaves us with many important life and political lessons, one of which is contained in his autobiography. It’s that his leadership was inspired and energised by his socialisation.

Original photo by Thierry Ermann, CC. Adapted by
“When he emerged from prison people discovered that he was all the things they had hoped for and more. He is by far the most admired and revered statesperson in the world and one of the greatest human beings to walk this earth.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, on Nelson Mandela. Original photo by Thierry Ermann, CC. Adapted by

Mandela, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, understood leadership and morality in sociological terms. All three leaders saw the importance of learning about culture, drawing on support from their social networks, fine tuning their communication skills through social interaction with different groups, and engaging in informed debate through study. Above all else, Mandela’s life, when viewed through the lens of prosocial moral disobedience, shows that doing good, speaking out against injustice and overcoming oppression was an evolving process of socialisation.

We are not born “good” or “bad.” We aren’t born leaders nor followers. Mandela’s autobiography demonstrates what sociologists call reflexivity. Mandela wanted his followers to know that morality is a choice we make over and over to do what we think is right. What is “right” is not necessarily what is lawful. What is right is not just what we know from personal experience. We learn about morality by engaging in critical thinking and continually re-evaluating our social position and social privilege, and by drawing on systems of social support.

Like Gandhi and King, Mandela is an exceptional human being for many reasons, but perhaps what most impresses me from this analysis is that Mandela understood a basic sociological truth, and one that I draw on a lot in my own thinking. It comes from Peter Berger, who writes how sociology teaches us that: “things are not as they seem“:

Social reality turns out to have many layers of meaning. The discovery of each new layer changes the perception of the whole.

Learn More

World Leaders React to Mandela’s Death

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