Applying Nelson Mandela’s Wisdom During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the globe, many people are feeling let down by their leaders on both a local and national level. The often hostile political climate surrounding this crisis has left us feeling confused, scared, and unsure about what the future holds for us as individuals and as a society. We’re also dealing with an unprecedented state of isolation, where we’re unable to physically reach out for support from our friends and extended family. 


Though none of us can predict the course of COVID-19, we’re far from being helpless in this time of physical distancing and uncertainty. By looking to the great leaders of the past, we can find inspiration and strategies to deal with the challenges of the present. We can learn lessons that will help us grow long after this pandemic is over, and find new meaning to guide us along life’s journey.


Nelson Mandela: From Prisoner to World Leader


Few leaders could empathize more with the hardships of isolation than Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary and compassionate philanthropist who eventually became South Africa’s first black president. Mandela spent 27 years of his life in jail, including 18 years on Robben Island, where conditions were harsh and prisoners were frequently subjected to solitary confinement. Illness, hopelessness, and death were facts of everyday life for prisoners interned there. When Nelson Mandela arrived at Robben Island, the warder’s first words to him were, “This is the Island. This is where you will die.”


The warder could not have been more wrong; Nelson Mandela both survived and thrived throughout his period of isolation. He used his time in prison to reflect on his personal shortcomings, strengthen his resolve, and improve the lives of his fellow prisoners. He also cultivated a spirit of understanding, learning about others’ stories and beliefs, including the beliefs of his political opponents. Years after his release, he would credit many of his skills as a leader to his time in prison, saying that "If I had not gone to jail and been able to read and listen to the stories of many people. ... I might not have learned these things." 


Today, though Nelson Mandela is no longer with us, we can still learn a lot from his legacy. By studying his sense of purpose, calm determination, and inclusive worldview, we can imagine the advice he would have given us during this time of crisis and nurture our own dreams of a better future. 


Thriving in Isolation: 3 Lessons We Can Learn from Nelson Mandela


1.Reflect, don’t react. 


When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, he initially began to dwell on the injustices that he and other black South Africans had endured under the apartheid regime. Ultimately, however, he realized that being consumed by anger and bitterness wouldn’t help him, and it wouldn’t further his cause. Instead of allowing negative emotions to rule him, he chose to use his time in prison to reflect on his decisions: He saw that in the past, he and other members of the ANC (African National Congress) had allowed their actions to be driven by the anger they felt towards their oppressors. As a result, they had sometimes inflamed the situation or made short-sighted decisions. He vowed to make choices based on reflection and consultation in the future, a quality that would eventually allow him to lead one of the few nonviolent revolutions in history. 


It’s normal to feel afraid and angry during times of crisis, but focusing on political or social rivalries only serves to further destabilize the situation. Instead, we must use isolation to reassess our past choices and think about how we might improve our treatment of others. We should also remain mindful of our reactions: Rather than getting angry at people who are panic buying or failing to adhere to strict social distancing guidelines, for example, try to empathize with them. Understand that, like you, they’re scared and frustrated, then think of ways to encourage them to work towards the common good. If we all take these steps, we’ll emerge from this pandemic a calmer, less judgmental society. 


"If you have an objective in life, then you want to concentrate on that and not engage in infighting with your enemies… You want to create an atmosphere where you can move everybody toward the goal you have set for yourself." -Nelson Mandela


2.Create a meaningful routine.


To survive the monotony of prison life, Nelson Mandela developed an enriching routine that kept his body and mind in peak condition. Every day, he would exercise in his tiny cell to dissipate tension, which he called “the enemy of serenity.” He also negotiated to earn reading and writing privileges, which were initially forbidden to inmates, so that he could further his education and write long letters to his loved ones. At the end of each day, he would meditate for at least 15 minutes to settle his mind and deepen his sense of self-awareness. 


As you deal with the challenges of social isolation, try to establish a daily routine that helps you discharge stress, develop a better relationship with yourself, connect safely with others, and broaden your knowledge of the world. Treat confinement as “an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings.” (Nelson Mandela) 


If possible, maintain your new routine even after you go back to work and begin socializing normally again; it will help you live a more centered, meaningful life. 


3. Build a sense of purpose, both individually and in your community.


Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Nelson Mandela during this crisis is to maintain an unwavering faith in the future. Though he was faced with hardship that had no foreseeable end, he didn’t become disheartened or lose sight of his goals. Over the course of the 27 years he spent in prison, he thought continually about what he was preparing for: The eventual peaceful end of the apartheid regime. 


While in prison, Mandela found strength in showing solidarity with other exiled ANC members, and he honed his skills as a leader and negotiator. He worked to improve the conditions experienced by prisoners at Robben Island, advocating for fairer rations, less manual labour, and better access to educational materials. He was also careful to never put his own desire for freedom above the greater good of his community. Though he had several opportunities to escape prison, he never attempted it, and he even rejected offers of release when their conditions were not favourable to the ANC’s cause. 


Despite his isolation, Nelson Mandela maintained a sense of his purpose within society, which is essential to staying motivated. As social beings, we need to know we’re making valuable contributions to our community to lead an engaging, meaningful life.


As you navigate these challenging times, prime yourself for leadership by regularly reflecting on how you feel and what you’re learning: Which issues move you the most, and why? What new needs do you see arising in the world due to COVID-19, either in the short-term or after the disease has subsided? Have certain elements of this crisis changed society for the better (e.g., reductions in air pollution), and how do we maintain those positive changes in the future? 


Once you feel inspired, think about your individual strengths and skills, and imagine ways you could use them to ease the burdens faced by humanity right now. For example, if you have a strong financial aptitude, you could help people manage the economic uncertainty that will follow COVID-19, or provide advice to people seeking government assistance. If you’re concerned about the welfare of the elderly, you could help deliver their groceries or keep them company from a safe distance through letters or phone calls. After the pandemic is over, you could continue your work by planning ways to alleviate the isolation many seniors experience, or champion to improve the living conditions in long-term care homes. 


After you assume a leadership role in your life and community, your feelings of anxiety will give way to a sense of shared, empowered purpose. Eventually, like Nelson Mandela, you may look back on this challenging time of isolation as being pivotal to your growth. Though you can’t control the COVID-19 pandemic, you can control the way you react to it, and you can help shape the direction society takes after it has run its course. Together, we can make this crisis the beginning of a fairer, more compassionate chapter in our history.


Kamal Sarma CEO Rezilium RUOK ThinkTank Chair Leadwell Global: Head of Innovation and Research CaptivateTheFuture Co-Founder