Madiba: An ambassador for hope and mental health?

Suntosh R. Pillay

May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears” – Nelson Mandela

July is Mental Illness Awareness Month, and July 18 is Nelson Mandela International Day. Madiba actually embodied awesome mental health. Despite imprisonment at age 44, while married and the father of five children, he left prison 27 years later at peace with himself and his oppressors. His memoirs reveal that the cruelty of the apartheid system was designed to break down one’s humanity, and many Robben Island prisoners contemplated suicide; but Mandela stayed focused on the end goals of liberation, freedom, and democracy. Once released, he even remarried at the age of 80!

Graça Machel gave him hope again. In Mandela: The Authorised Biography, he said “I don’t regret the reverses and setbacks because late in my life I am blooming like a flower, because of the love and support she has given me”. Indeed, those are the two ingredients for fantastic mental health: love and support.

Even serious mental illnesses benefit from these special qualities, and help dispel the myth that mental illness is incurable. In their review of the research, Leonhardt et al. (2017) concluded that “abundant evidence exists showing recovery is possible and in fact a likely outcome for those with serious mental illness”.

These are stories of hope. And as psychology professionals we are in the business of hope. In these pessimistic times of ‘state capture’, corruption, poverty, inequalities, unemployment, and other social pathologies, such as racism, rape, and homophobia, it is easy to feel despondent about the state of South African society. The metaphor of the rainbow nation has lost its currency and a politics of hope has been replaced by a politics of radical dissent. Will a ‘New Dawn’ change this? We wait with bated breath!

In the spirit of the slogan of Mandela Day, “Take Action. Inspire Change”, this optimistic reminder implies that the best way to predict the future is to create it. As psychology professionals, our core belief is that people and society has the propensity and potential to improve; I would go as far as saying that our raison d’être as a science and profession is to inspire the possibilities that tomorrow can indeed be better if we have the ability to make better choices. Hopelessness is fatal. We know that. It must never be an option.

Mandela wrote that “hope is a powerful weapon” after reading two self-help books. This is contained in a letter written in 1969 and published last year in The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela. Writing to Winnie Mandela, he said:

 “The Power of Positive Thinking” and “The Results of Positive Thinking” both written by the American psychologist Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, may be rewarding to read […] I consider his views on physical and psychological issues valuable. 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 […] Remember that hope is a powerful weapon even when all else is lost.

This Mandela Day, let us commit to a manifesto of hope, one in which we actively inspire the spaces and spheres of influence in which we find ourselves working and living. This will inspire change by improving our own mental health and that of those around us.

Suntosh R. Pillay is a clinical psychologist in a public hospital in Durban, and executive member of PsySSA’s Community and Social Psychology Division


Madiba spent 67 years making the world a better place. This year, PsySSA would like to remind you to celebrate his birthday by acting on the idea that each person has the power to change the world.

Let us know what you are doing on Mandela Day by including the hashtag #PsySSAMandelaDay on your social media posts.

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