Day 33. Nelson Mandela reminds us of the power of reading during lockdown

Since the lockdown, people have started reading again. The challenge is not necessarily if you read, but what you read. What you read is like food for the heart, mind, soul and spirit.

Reading changes you

What you read changes you. The content you digest becomes part of who you are. Consciously and/or subconsciously it influences your life in the direction the author wanted you to go.

There are of course other avenues to explore in order to keep the mind busy. There are also audiobooks for those who find reading difficult. Films, documentaries, TV-programs, etc. are all part of learning and entertainment. Storytelling is a special method of teaching and learning. There is, however, a special power in reading. We need to see reading as part of our self-education.

Nelson Mandela knew the power of reading and especially education.

Nelson Mandela, reading and education

Nelson Mandela’s mother and father were illiterate. As a child Madiba’s primary source of information was initially listening to the stories his father told of historic battles and heroic warriors while his mother would enchant them with Xhosa legends and fables that had come down from numberless generations. Madiba was deeply influenced by these stories and legends and in his autobiography he wrote:[i]

 “These tales stimulated my childish imagination and usually contained some moral lesson”. Nelson Mandela

The importance of storytelling is still today a valuable source of information and inspiration. Children’s programs especially catch the imagination. At the tribal councils he attended, Madiba was also taught about tribal Ubuntu – meaning ‘all-is-one’

Nelson Mandela and education

Madiba’s education was nudged into a higher gear when his mother was inspired to become a Christian. The church leaders suggested that Madiba should go to school, as he was: ‘a clever young fellow’.

 Although none of the other family members had ever attended school, Madiba’s father immediately agreed. This was not only the beginning of his schooling but also the beginning of Madiba becoming a lifelong student.

Madiba took his schoolwork seriously. Not only did he diligently do his homework, he still did his chores as a ploughboy, a wagon guide and a shepherd. He acknowledged that he did well at school, not because he was clever, but because he was committed and disciplined in his work. He also had a natural self-discipline.

Nelson Mandela’s love for reading

Madiba’s love for reading and studying, became part of his being. To access new information, to study, to read and to learn stayed with him throughout his life. Not only did he excel at his schoolwork, he later became an excellent law student.

. Madiba was very adamant about the importance of education. 

 “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Nelson Mandela

Madiba, the ANC and Education

He was also dedicated to the education of all people.

 “It was ANC policy to try to educate all people, even our enemies: we believed that all men, even prison service warders, were capable of change, and we did our utmost to try to sway them.” Nelson Mandela

One factor that always stands out is that Madiba was educated in an illiterate tribal clan that taught him to stand for honesty, truth, peace, synergy, quality living for all and Ubuntu. However, Ubuntu now reached further than just clan or tribal Ubuntu. It started became Universal Ubuntu to included everyone. In the end Madiba was prepared to make peace with everyone – even his enemies.

 “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” Nelson Mandela

From a young age Nelson Mandela was taught the value of reading and learning. Then he went to prison for nearly 28-years and all this was stripped from him.

The importance of reading

We can stay informed when we read. We are free to read the news headlines, to read articles, to Google whatever we want to know. We live in the Information Era. The ability to read is a necessity. Those who don’t or can’t read, are at a disadvantage.  

Although Nelson Mandela and his Comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment in maximum security of a prison-island, he got time to read.

I believe that it was his reading, as an unplanned ‘educational period’ during this prison time, that took Madiba to new and deeper levels of understanding and new levels of personal accomplishment. The time he had to read, and the quality of his reading matter, made an indelible impact of his heart, mind, soul and spirit. In his autobiography Madiba frequently refers to this time.

I believe here lies the cutting edge between a break-through and a break-down. My belief is that without this step in Nelson Mandela’s ‘life-curriculum’, things would have turned out totally different.

So, what did Nelson Mandela read during his lockdown period, that changed him for the better?

Nelson Mandela and reading during lockdown

Nelson Mandela was a prolific reader.

“One of the things that made me long to be back in prison was that I had so little opportunity for reading, thinking and quiet reflection after my release.” Nelson Mandela

While in prison he had the opportunity and time to read numerous books, even very liberal books that included novellas by Nadine Gordimer[ii], publications by Ernest Hemmingway[iii], and books by Tolstoy that included War and Peace and others.[iv]

The Complete Works of Shakespeare was smuggled to Madiba by a fellow political prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam, who chose it as the one book he was permitted when first imprisoned.[v]

The Robben Island Shakespeare is a 1970 edition of The Alexander Text of the Complete Works of Shakespeare – probably the most widely sold and read scholarly edition of Shakespeare’s texts in the twentieth century. The volume was covered in colorful, religious Diwali cards, celebrating the Hindu festival of lights and a gullible warder was convinced that it was Sonny Venkatrathnam’s bible. When he was transferred to the small single-cell section where Nelson Mandela, among others, was kept, he took it with him.

He then circulated the book to his fellow prisoners in the single cells, asking them to mark their favorite passages from Shakespeare with their signature and the date. Between 1975 and 1978 thirty-three of Venkatrathnam’s fellow prisoners signed the book, including Nelson Mandela.

Various memoirs and autobiographies[vi] were also part of Madiba’s quest to grow in a deeper knowing and understanding while becoming more competent in his response to the inner calling of freedom.

Although not a religious person, Madiba also read the Bible. While he was a student at Fort Hare University, he gave Bible classes.

He also read philosophical books.

Philosophical books and influences

While in prison he also had time to internalise the teachings, philosophies and religious dogma he obtained from the wide range of books he read. We now see how this time of silence, reading and contemplation influenced his thinking and sculpted his life to make him the man he was destined to become.

Madiba especially found consolation in and guidance from the following persons and readings:

  • Mahatma Gandhi

The respect and reverence Madiba had for Mahatma Gandhi and the work he did is well documented. In Gandhi, Madiba found someone who echoed the journey of his soul to freedom. Although they lived at different times, their philosophy towards life, equality and freedom resonated with the universal principles of quality living and freedom for all.

Mahatma Gandhi also had various spiritual, academic, political and social teachers that included people like Tolstoy. Gandhi himself had specially been influenced by The Kingdom of God Is Within You, a nonviolent classic written by Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy.[vii]

At the same time he inspired upcoming leaders that included Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela; and today we find American President Barak Obama echoing these sentiments.

Another influential person in Madiba’s life was Martin Luther King.

  • Martin Luther King

Michael King Jr. was renamed Martin Luther King by his father in honor of the German evangelist, Martin Luther. Also known as MLK, he was born in 1929 and was assassinated at the age of 39. He is known worldwide as an American clergyman, activist, humanitarian and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.[viii] Martin Luther King is best known for his inspiring quotes, letters and speeches, and for his prominent role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience.[ix]

Like Tolstoy and Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, King was also imprisoned at various times. In his letters from jail he urged action consistent with what he describes as Jesus’ “extremist” love. In his speech I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, he states he just wanted to do God’s will.[x] On October 14th 1964 King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence.

Madiba was deeply inspired by reading works be MLK. Nelson Mandela also received the Nobel Peace Prize he shared with Pres. FW de Klerk. In turn Madiba was also influenced by the teachings of Tolstoy.

  • Tolstoy

Count Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 into the Tolstoy family of Russian nobility. Tolstoy’s parents died when he was young, and he and his siblings were brought up by relatives. As a renowned novelist, his message of nonviolence and reform was reflected in his short stories, plays and essays, of which War and Peace and Anna Karenina are the most well-known.[xi]

Later in life, Tolstoy became a fervent Christian anarchist and anarcho-pacifist. This influence still spills over into our modern-day situation and global leadership challenges.

Madiba was also a student of these iconic leaders, and by studying their literature; he inevitably was prepared for his great task in Africa and his universal calling.

Nothing is as it seems

Fortunately, Madiba was an ardent reader. What is important to note is the kind and quality of content he read during his lockdown. By understanding these teachers, we also get a clearer vision of Madiba’s path and the steps included in the Long walk to freedom. This also reveals the impact of exposure to such literature and the power of reading.

Nothing is ever the way that it seems. I believe that Nelson Mandela was exposed to this kind and quality of information because he was in prison. Where else would Madiba have found the time to read this all?

One doesn’t easily find and/or get exposed to this kind of information, just by chance. I believe that we are in the Universal Earth School-for-life. The Universe has its own curriculum and ways and means to get the right information to us, so that we can fulfill our purpose and calling. We just need to open up and listen. We are never alone.

Lockdown becomes an education

Looking back on this path it becomes evident that the time spent in prison was a valuable tool in Madiba’s personal, social and universal education, development, personal growth and preparation for his soul calling.

Like other iconic leaders, Nelson Mandela didn’t focus on what separates us, but invested his life’s efforts in what brings us together and unites us as one. He lived the real Universal Ubuntu.[xii]

Freedom to read

In our modern Information Age, we have total freedom to read whatever we want, when we want and how we want. We have freedom of choice.

The questions are:  Is the content you are currently reading – making your better or bitter? Will your information bring about a break-through or a break-down? Will it liberate you as it liberated Nelson Mandela? Is your time in lockdown preparing you for the next season of fulfilling your personal purpose, personal calling and leading a happy fulfilling life? Or – after all this, will is just be business as usual?

Nelson Mandela reminds us that the best is still to come after lockdown. Are you preparing?

To do list

Here are a few ideas to help you on this path:

  • Do you read? What why?
  • Are you learning about life-lessons you never knew before?
  • Will you be able to implement these lessons? Where? How?
  • What have you learnt from reading the life lessons from Nelson Mandela during this lockdown period? Does it make you better?  Do you have more hope for the future?
  • The Nelson Mandela life lessons finish on Thursday 30 April, what is your next step?
  • Contact us if you need any assistance
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Stay safe – stay connected

Brenda Hattingh


[i]   Nelson Mandela. Long walk to freedom. Illustrated Biography.  P. 8

[ii]   Gordimer, Nadine. (2012). Burger’s daughter. London: Bloomsbury Paperbacks.

      Gordimer, Nadine. See all her novellas:

[iii]   Hemmingway, Ernest. (2002) For whom the bell tolls. Scribner Publishing.     

[iv]   See his list of books on website:

[v]   See:

[vi]   See the other books, memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, Madiba read.

      – Cleaver, Eldridge. (1999). Soul on Ice. New York: Delta Publishers.

      –  Rockerfeller, David. (2011). Memoirs. London: Random House Paperbacks. 

      –  Morrison, Lionel. A century of black journalism in Britain. (out of print)

      –  Frasier, Malcolm & Simmons. The political memoirs. (out of print)

      –  Convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

         Council of Europe. (out of print)

      –  Nasser Al-Bader, Atiq. Dearest. (out of print)

      –  West, Cornel. (2005) Democracy Matters. Penguin Books. London.

      –  Tobias, Philip. (2013). Into the past. A memoir. Picador Africa.

      –  Gandhi, Sonia.(1992) Rajiv. South Asia Books.

      –  Steinbeck, John.(2001). Grapes of Wrath. Penguin Books. New Ed Edition.

      –  Most books by Gandhi. 

      –  Books by Tolstoy

      –  The Holy Bible: King James Version. (2006). London Cambridge University Press.

[vii]   Tolstoy, Leo. (1894). The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Christianity not as a mystic

             religion but as a new theory of life. Translated by Constance Garnett. New York:

             Public domain. Amazon/Kindle. 

[viii]  Downing, Frederick L. (1986). To See the Promised Land: The Faith Pilgrimage

             of Martin Luther King, Jr. Mercer University Press.

[ix]   Nojeim, Michael J. (2004). Gandhi and King: The Power of Nonviolent Resistance.

             Greenwood Publishing Group.

[x]   Ibid.

[xi]   Tolstoy, Leo. (1893). The Kingdom of God is within you. NY: Penguin Classics.

      Tolstoy, Leo. (1869). War and peace. New York: Penguin Classics.

      Tolstoy, Leo. (1877).  Anna Karenina. New York: Penguin Classics.

[xii]  Ubuntu: An African term for the oneness, interconnectedness and caring  one for the other as part of self. There is ‘tribal’ Ubuntu referring to taking care of the  unity, survival and safety of the tribe. There is also a wider universal perspective as the Universal Ubuntu. The Universal Ubuntu is all inclusive as everyone is part of the human race. It takes a bold step to leave the narrow tribal survival perspective for an all-inclusive perspective and value system. Nelson Mandela could make this quantum leap. Our challenge is to do the same