Updated: May 6
Nelson Mandela's Prison Letters, or, how to use isolation to create a better world
Here is the rare and the best book I have ever bought from Dymocks, "The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela" (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018).
It's my new pandemic reading. Each day after this I will read one of these letters.
As I read these letters, I'll imagine what it was like to be Mandela.
It's true there's a risk in trying to put yourself in the shoes of other people. As a reader, we don't want drown out a specific voice and contribution. Worse, no one wants to dance over someone else with our own set of privileges. What I do want is to understand is what Mandela's example teaches us about how to respond to the global crisis of the Covid-19 (Cornovirus) pandemic. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for fighting the institutionalised racism of the apartheid system in South Africa, 18 years in hard labour on Robben Island Prison, then one of the worst places to be on earth.
Some of us in a sombre mood might compare the current Covid-19 lock-down to living in a prison. For many of us, this situation is as much deprivation as we have ever faced in our lives. It causes us to mourn the loss of something we took for granted, the privileges we used to live and thrive.
That experience we cannot ignore doesn't mean it's not comparatively just a small taster of what is faced by prisoners in our society.
I mean those real and figurative prisoners, including Mandela and many targets of systematic discrimination, who have suffered and continue to suffer today. Isolated with no choice about the distance they keep, these others are not somewhere else, but here, in our communities today.
Imagine what it is like to be alive right now simultaneously facing Covid-19 and a system even a bit like apartheid. To brave that and to hold your head up high. Or to do as Mandela did, to go on to lead an entire country, and do it with the self-awareness, reassessment, the humanity, and steely commitment.
These attributes are captured in the words of Mandela's letters. The letters demonstrate the kind of resolve that people must summon, sometimes just to survive. Mandela sometimes frustrates, and intrigues me, but I admire his example and what it took to persist.
The letters are an insight into my own goals for 2020. Covid-19 has put a hold on my specific plans for this year, in ways that are familiar to everyone. That is a challenge but also an opportunity.
I'm going to use my free time to read good books like Mandela's that help me respond to a new set of circumstances we find ourselves.
My goal is to use the time I have during this global shutdown and pandemic to work out how I want to change this society when we 'get out' of this crisis.
There is an opportunity to take all the fear and pain of this situation to be curious and to create something better and more just:
✔️A more resilient society that not only responds to pandemics and complex social and health problems but prevents them by mitigating and removing the risk factors.
✔️A fairer, more effective society that overcomes discrimination and gives everyone and every sentient being equal consideration, no longer hoarding and shunning without reason or cause.
✔️A more truthful and humane society that collaborates without damaging partisanship, that mitigates misinformation and fosters widespread creativity and positive change.
One vital way we can use our self-isolation and social distancing is as thinking time. We can use this pandemic to scout out and take actions that give us better results.
Periods of thinking and careful consideration are crucial and essential for everything that matters.
They allow us to influence others to create the society that we want to live in tomorrow and together. They can help us change our lives, our communities, and be "productive" in a way that isn't simply a reproduction of somebody else's flawed system.
Besides fighting his imprisonment and political oppression through the legal system, Mandela used his time in prison to:
✔️ Think and try to create a new society that progressively removed apartheid and other sources of injustice.
✔️ To understand the white South Africans and their system, to humanise his enemies so he could persuade and move them and create the collaboration that would change society.
✔️ To become a person who could consider and understand all interests before making decisions and taking actions.
Even Bill Gates uses his enormous wealth to have "think weeks" isolated in a cabin in the woods to solve problems like energy and climate change. Because thinking is what empowers us.
So let this be a thinking person's pandemic.
✔️What are we going to be reading?
✔️What are we going to be thinking about?
✔️What problems are we going to research in order to help solve?
✔️How are we going to understand the interests around us in order to create a society that is more proactive in solving problems?
✔️How are we going to get 'stuck in' to change things?
I say 'stuck in' because Mandela knew that when we can we can use our thinking to get stuck in, changing things even despite our physical distance.
As Mandela writes, in words that were never intended to be restricted to people who were not in isolation:
"A new world will be won not by those who stand at a distance with their arms folded, but by those who are in the arena, whose garments are torn by storms & whose bodies are maimed in the course of contest."
This contest certainly beats worrying too much about toilet paper.