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How Nelson Mandela Found Hope

Norman Vincent Peale inspired the South African leader during his 27 years in prison on Robben Island.

Nelson Mandela
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How to find hope in the most hopeless of situations?

The letters that South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela sent during his 27 years in prison have recently been published, and they offer extraordinary insights into the soul of a man who suffered in abysmal conditions as punishment for his revolutionary anti-apartheid activism.

How did he survive through all of it? Hope. He clearly clung to hope even when things looked most hopeless. When his mother died, and he was unable to go to the funeral. When his son was killed in a car accident, and he was not allowed to leave the prison. How do you keep hope then?

I visited the prison at Robben Island in South Africa not long ago and saw the place where Mandela spent the bulk of his prison years. The guides were former prisoners, and they showed us around the cramped, dank, concrete cells. We could see the lime quarry where prisoners were forced to work.

Mandela was not allowed to wear dark glasses and the glare of the hot South African sun on the white lime permanently damaged his eyesight. Worse was the constant harassment from guards.

And yet there in the letters you can hear him immersing himself in hope. Like a warm bath. It was especially touching to read that seven years into his imprisonment he read Guideposts founder Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and commended it to his wife.

Mandela writes about Peale, “He makes the basic point that it is not so much the disability one suffers from that matters but one’s attitude to it. The man who says: I will conquer this illness and live a happy life is already halfway through to victory.”

Inspired by Peale, he goes on to say “Remember that hope is a powerful weapon even when all else is lost.”

In another letter he comments on the Scriptures, referring to the apostle Paul as a “perfect pest.” A pest by virtue of his insistence on what was right. No doubt Mandela empathized with a man who was writing from prison.

Nelson Mandela went on to describe those saints of biblical times: “They visualize a new world where there will be no wars, where famine, disease and racial intolerance will be no more, precisely the world for which I am fighting…”

It would be a long fight but Mandela never relinquished the values he believed. They stood him in good stead, through illness, suffering, loss and his eventual release from prison and return to public life when he became South Africa’s President.

A beacon of hope not only to his country but to the world. “Our cause is just,” he wrote from that prison. “It is a fight for human dignity and for an honorable life.” 

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