Fake quotes from former South African President Nelson Mandela are a dime a dozen on the internet. In September 2020, a quote on racial divisions began to make the rounds in the wake of protests over police brutality against Black people in the U.S.
This quote was attributed to Mandela:
"Our world is not divided by race, color, gender, or religion. Our world is divided into wise people and fools. And fools divide themselves by race, color, gender, or religion."
Snopes readers asked us if Mandela did indeed say these words. We learned that he did not. The internet had taken someone else’s words and attributed them to Mandela.
In order to determine this, we reached out to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, founded by Mandela in 1999, and which hosts archives featuring his speeches and letters. The foundation is considered a definitive resource on the life of the man who led the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.
Razia Saleh, director of the research and archives department at the foundation, confirmed to us that this was not a Mandela quote, as she could not locate it anywhere in their collection of his speeches, and in the book, “Nelson Mandela by Himself: The Authorized Book of Quotations.”
An internet search connects the quote to Mohamad Safa, who describes himself as a human rights advocate and climate activist, as well as a permanent representative to the United Nations. Saleh also directed us to one of Safa's posts from Aug. 6, 2020, suggesting that he was the source:
On Sept. 6, Safa claimed that the quote was his:
[...] I don't like those who always spread false information or pass our quotes under someone else name. I don't know who put Nelson Mandela's name on my words and shared it online. And I am very proud that my words are the same thoughts and thinking that a historical figure like Mandela had. But these are my words like the rest of my writings. If they were Mandela words, you would have heard of them before and you can do your search.
In the comments section of his post, an individual acknowledged incorrectly attributing Safa’s words to Nelson Mandela, and said he was quoting another tweet that shared the same meme.
We found no other potential source for the quote. Even though Safa claimed that Mandela had the same thoughts, we believe it is highly unlikely that Mandela would have used this language to advocate against racial or gender divisions.
In April 2021, an individual named Oleg Atbashian reached out to Snopes and claimed to be the origin of this quote. He said he posted a meme on Facebook page "The People's Cube," using similar language back in July 2020, before Safa. The meme had a small change saying instead that, "America is not divided by race, color, gender, or sexual orientation." He said, "I'm only taking credit for creating this meme out of an earlier Russian joke, which I had come across this summer, translated it into English, rephrased it to fit the current political reality in America, and photoshopped it into a sharable image."
Atbashian claimed that the original Russian quote was, "People are not divided into ethnicities, parties, fractions, and religions. People are divided into smart ones and morons. And morons divide themselves into ethnicities, parties, fractions, and religions."
Many people have been skeptical of our capacity to realize the ideal of a rainbow nation. It is true that South Africa was often brought to the brink of destruction because of differences. But let us re-affirm this one thing here today; it is not our diversity which divides us; it is not our ethnicity, or religion or culture that divides us. Since we have achieved our freedom, there can only be one division amongst us: between those who cherish democracy and those who do not.
The foundation shared the following Mandela quote as well, which he made in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Oct. 3, 1994:
In all we do, we have to ensure the healing of the wounds inflicted on all our people across the great dividing line imposed on our society by centuries of colonialism and apartheid. We must ensure that color, race and gender become only a God-given gift to each one of us and not an indelible mark or attribute that accords a special status to any.
Based on the information we received from the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and the original quote being claimed by other individuals, we rate it as “Misattributed.”