He wasn't always such an icon, of course. There was a time when certain governments in the west were quite happy that Mandela was in jail, and in many ways they explicitly or implicitly supported the apartheid South African government. Otherwise, how else could the government in Pretoria have kept him imprisoned for 27 years?
Mandela was a resistance fighter, let us remember. He and the African National Congress resisted a government who would not embrace democratic principles. Sometimes that resistance included armed struggle. The British newspaper The Independent of 8th December 2013 reminds us:
An opinion article in the Daily Mail on the day of the concert to mark Mandela's 70th birthday in 1988 encapsulated their views [of certain MPs in the British Conservative Party]: "The ANC and its leader Nelson Mandela have no more claim to be saints or heroes than do the Provisional IRA with their lynch mobs and car bombers." In the mid-1980s, Thatcher herself had described the African National Congress as a "typical terrorist organisation" and – in defiance of many among the black South African opposition –refused to apply more than minimal sanctions against apartheid.
How is this relevant to English Language Teaching, you may wonder? Well, consider these topics: how many of them ever appear in our coursebooks?
Multinationals: are they criminal organisations?
Democracy: is it democratic?
Social media: how have they changed the way people protest?
Women's Day: How men keep women in their place
My school education: why it doesn't/didn't work - and how to make it better
Terrorists or freedom fighters: is it ever legitimate to take up an armed struggle?
Fashion: is it murdering women?
My country: the worst things about it - and how to make it better
Of course they don't appear in coursebooks. Nor, as a general rule, do pictures of same-sex couples, people with disabilities, or homeless people. Publishers need to keep things generally bland and to avoid offending sensibilities - otherwise, they argue, their books and materials won't be adopted by schools, regions or entire countries.
But just now and again don't you get the feeling that your students would really like to get their teeth into something controversial, less middle of-the-road - and just possibly related to the things they might be concerned about outside the classroom, concerns they address and are confronted with in their everyday lives? Why not ask them?
If this sounds intriguing to you. and you are interested in giving space to learners' voices in areas of social criticism, check out this e-book by Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings:
52: a year of subversive activity for the ELT classroom
You can sample it on The Round website and if you want to buy it (it's just a few euros) you can get it from Smashwords (you just need to register and call up the book) or go to
As the authors say, however, be warned: you may be shocked and you may find some of this material shocking. There will be learners and classes you can't use this with. But how refreshing if you can.
Nelson Mandela was a champion of peace and reconciliation, true. But he also resisted oppression and was ready to die for his principles. Should we banish such topics from the ELT classroom? Or can we and should we give a voice to our learners to engage with concepts of social awareness, inclusiveness and social justice amongst our learners?