Nelson Mandela and Self Discipline


Sad news this week. Nelson Mandela, the great statesman and leader has died. There has been a lot of reported controversy over the claims that there is a running dispute amongst his family about where he should be buried. Obviously there are tourist rights that have to be taken into account etc.  If these rumours are true, then in my opinion those involved haven’t listened to his words or truly appreciated his achievements. This famous speech (below) defined the man who developed into a mature leader, a man who stood up against intolerance and inequality wherever he found it.

“ I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

I was always very impressed to hear of Mandela’s rigid daily routine and wondered how much this had supported him during the long years of incarceration. In addition, it has been publicized that he had an interest in boxing. In his own words, he said:

“I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match. Boxing is egalitarian: in the ring, rank, age,colour, and wealth are irrelevant…I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress. After a strenuous workout, I felt both mentally and physically lighter. It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle. After an evening’s workout I would wake up the next morning feeling strong and refreshed, ready to take up the fight again”. 

His statements illustrate how physical training and the ‘zen’ of boxing allowed him to find strength and stay focussed on his ideals. He also worked within very strict time boundaries as this account of his routine during his time as president shows:

The years in jail reinforced habits that were already entrenched: the disciplined eating regime of an athlete began in the 1940’s, as did the early morning exercises.  His daily routine was to be up by 4.30 am, irrespective of how late he had worked the previous evening. By 5 am he had begun his exercise routine that lasted at least 1 hour. Breakfast was over by 6.30, when the newspapers were read: the day’s work has begun.

A book I read recently about Nervous Tension stated that there was no such thing as pure willpower; there is only re-structuring life so that new patterns of behaviour are created. Internal demands not to be stressed or depressed only serve to bring more attention to the very things we are trying to ‘run’ from.

I would hope that Mr Mandela’s message of personal responsibility for change is taken up individually by every South African. Intolerance, procrastination, ignorance, and apathy are all hurdles to a full life and to the development of understanding and inclusion.  I think Mr Mandela also speaks to more people than just South Africans. Certainly condolences arriving from all around the world would suggest that. However, there is a danger that beyond the ‘celebrity ‘ and ‘ideology’ over-played to sell newspapers, we miss the personal message:

Set your goals! Set your course! Use self-discipline as a compass to return you back when you have deviated from the way and to prevent you steering off course in the first place. Indeed, we are all responsible for change. Setting routines may seem a little less colourful than the drama of immediate change.  However, I think they form an integral part of the advancement of goals and the perseverance of a values-based approach . 

The last words in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are “Goodbye and thanks for the fish.” I say, “Goodbye Mr Mandela and thanks for showing us how to fish.”