The world mourns the loss of Nelson Mandela at the age of 95. He lived his life for others and from an early age, entered the fight for freedom and equality to come to his nation.
Mandela has been a leader and example for me as I’ve been learning to navigate my own adversity. Studying his life has strengthened my resolve, renewed my hope, and given me handles to hang on to. One question people keep asking when reflecting on Mandela’s life is this, “How did he survive 27 years in prison and come out with no bitterness or hatred towards his oppressors but ready to lead a nation?”
I decided to dig into his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and see what I could find out. Here is a collection of his words I believe shed some light on this question.
Seven Beliefs and Practices Mandela Exercised to Survive Prison
1. He always kept believing things would get better
“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lay defeat and death.”
2. He saw oppression as character building
“The policy of apartheid created a deep and lasting wound in my country and my people. All of us will spend many years, if not generations, recovering from that profound hurt. But the decades of oppression and brutality had another, unintended effect, and that was that it produced the Oliver Tambos, the Walter Sisulus, the Chief Luthulis, the Yusuf Dadoos, the Bram Fischers, the Robert Sobukwes of our time—men of such extraordinary courage, wisdom, and generosity that their like may never be known again. Perhaps it requires such depth of oppression to create such heights of character. My country is rich in the minerals and gems that lie beneath its soil, but I have always known that its greatest wealth is its people, finer and truer than the purest diamonds.”
3. He focused his hatred on the system not the people running the system
“I was asked as well about the fears of whites. I knew that people expected me to harbor anger toward whites. But I had none. In prison, my anger toward whites decreased, but my hatred for the system grew. I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another.”
4. He found beauty in unsuspecting places fueling hope
“Some mornings I walked out into the courtyard and every living thing there, the seagulls and wagtails, the small trees, and even the stray blades of grass, seemed to smile and shine in the sun. It was at such times when I perceived the beauty of even this small, closed-in corner of the world, that I knew that someday my people and I would be free.”
5. He tended a garden and saw it as a metaphor for life and leadership
“A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom. In some ways, I saw the garden as a metaphor for certain aspects of my life. A leader must also tend his garden; he, too, plants seeds, and then watches, cultivates, and harvests the result. Like the gardener, a leader must take responsibility for what he cultivates; he must mind his work, try to repel enemies, preserve what can be preserved, and eliminate what cannot succeed.”
6. He never stopped reading the survival stories of others
“I had read some of the classic Greek plays in prison, and found them enormously elevating. What I took out of them was that character was measured by facing up to difficult situations and that a hero was a man who would not break even under the most trying circumstances.”
7. He didn’t survive alone but leaned on the camaraderie of others
“Prison is designed to break one’s spirit and destroy one’s resolve. To do this, the authorities attempt to exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality—all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes each of us human and each of us who we are. Our survival depended on understanding what the authorities were attempting to do to us, and sharing that understanding with each other.”
“It would be very hard if not impossible for one man alone to resist. I do not know that I could have done it had I been alone. But the authorities’ greatest mistake was keeping us together, for together our determination was reinforced. We supported each other and gained strength from each other.”
What other beliefs and practices do you believe he used to survive?
How do you need to apply any of these seven to your life right now?
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