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Reading “Long Walk to Freedom”
-the Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

Sritama Mandal

mandela

‘Long Walk to Freedom’ is the autobiography of former South African President, Nelson Mandela.  First published in 1994, it covers his life from youth in Apartheid South Africa, his coming of age and education, embrace of political activism and role in the anti-apartheid movement. It also vividly depicts his years in prison in the notorious Robben Island, where he was confined as a terrorist for his role as the leader of outlawed African National Congress. This narrative also recounts the period after his release and chronicles the fall of apartheid and his ascension to the Presidency, which he held at the time of the book’s release. Exploring the themes of racial equality and the ghastliness of apartheid, political protest and the ability of human spirit to overcome great hardship, this book, at once appealing and inspirational, is considered one of the most acclaimed and important autobiographies of the 20th century.

The first part of ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ delineates his upbringing in South Africa. Related to the royal Thembu Dynasty, he was given the childhood name Rolihlahla, which is translated as ‘pulling the branch of a tree’ or ‘troublemaker’. This name anticipated his lifelong passion for challenging unjust social order. He was educated at a Thembu College called Clarkebury, and later at the strict Healdtown School. Here the students had to follow strict routine and harsh rules. But Mandela always found it hard to obey without questioning. He later went to the University of Fort Hare to obtain B. A. degree. During this period, he got elected as the student’s representative to the Council of Student Political Organization. Soon he was expelled for participating in a protest in the campus. Because of this he left for Johannesburg where he finally obtained his B. A. degree. During the Second World War, he joined the African National Congress and formed a group with other members under the leadership of a colleague, Anton Lembede. The main focus of this group was to change the ANC into a mass movement. At this time Mandela also joined a law firm which helped him a lot to become politically aware and assess the true value of democracy.  

In this book, Mandela focuses on the political and social aspects of apartheid in South Africa and looks at politicians responsible for implementing them. They included Daniel Francois Malan, the first official leader of the apartheid regime. Mandela describes the methods used in the ANC. These included guerrilla tactics and underground organizations that were used to sabotage the apartheid regime. Mandela quickly became known as a significant political figure in South Africa and the apartheid regime became determined to silence him. He was arrested in 1961 and was convicted for inciting people to strike as well as leave the country without passport. He was sentenced to five years of imprisonment. However, soon afterwards additional charges of sabotage were brought against him in the notorious “RIVONIA TRIAL”. Although, he was facing the death penalty, Justice Dr. Quartus de Wet sentenced him to life imprisonment in 1963.

The second part of the book starts with RIVONIA and portrays the dark years at Robben Island. ANC prisoners earned ‘D’ classification, prisoners who were the most dangerous and had the least rights. They were kept in cells with hay carpets, thin blankets as beds and iron buckets for toilets. Their daily menu was a small amount of corn soup with extra vegetables or a chop of meat for diner. They were given thin khaki shirt and a pair of shorts to wear, even during the winter. They were debarred from reading newspaper and magazines. They had to spend most of the time toiling hard in the chalkmines.

Being the leader of the group, Mandela received more harsh treatment than the others. He was kept 23 hours in his cell every day, merely lit with a lamp. Because of this he spent sleepless nights and could not understand what the time was. He was only allowed to have one visitor once in six months and he was not allowed to see his wife Winnie for two years. The author’s yearning for his family life is the most searing part of this book. He was given permission to write and receive one letter in every six months. The letters he received were screened by the guards who could cut and remove the part that was considered unsafe. Many books have portrayed the prison warden James Gregory as a significant figure during Mandela’s imprisonment with Gregory himself claiming that he had a close friendship with his prisoner, the others accusing him of stealing information from Mandela’s letters to create this illusion. Mandela discusses Gregory only briefly, saying that his position allowed him access to the prisoner’s mail. Mandela endured all these brutal conditions and his dedication to the cause behind the bars for quarter of a century elevated him to the status of a martyr, icon and inspiration. When a new South African president, Fredrik William de Klark took power, he set about dismantling apartheid regime. The book ends by depicting Mandela’s release in 1990 and the astonishing moves towards the ANC’s near landslide victory in the breakthrough multiracial election of April 1994 when Mandela became South Africa’s first-ever black president. He has emerged as the world’s most significant moral leader after Mahatma Gandhi. As the spiritual figurehead of the antiapartheid movement, he was instrumental in moving South Africa towards black majority rule and throughout the world he is revered as vital force in the fight for human right and racial equality.

This book also brings out the conflicts and contradictions that he had to resolve throughout his life. The foster son a Thembu chief, he grew up straggling two worlds – the traditional culture of his tribe and the hostile reality of a white-dominated nation. Though he had a career in law, his growing political consciousness urged him to actively engage in the formation of the ANC’s Youth league. In the early 1950s he initiated the ‘defiance campaign’ against the government and called for non-violent forms of resistance, such as ‘civil disobedience, boycott, strike and non-cooperation’. However, following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, his position changed. He was forced to go underground to avoid the newly imposed ban on ANC. Soon he was nominated as the leader of the armed resistance group that was known as ‘Umkhonto We Sizwe’ (spear of the Nation). Along with some of his colleagues, he explained the raison d'être of this new group in the following terms: as long as violence was inevitable in their country, it was considered unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to preach peace and non-violence, because Government used to meet their peaceful demands by force. However, his voice has always been very human and dignified throughout the book. It is also magnificently unembittered and shows no sentimentalism. The reader feels that he had an insatiable thirst for becoming a better human being, to learn from his mistakes and right his wrongs. Originally resolute to gaining freedom for black South Africans, as he grew older, he extended his invitation to ethnic group of Indians, colored and even white groups, even though they had been his oppressors since birth. In my view, it takes great strength and character to fight for those who would not fight for you (discounting the cases of white South Africans who helped to fight for the cause; some even died for it).

First published in 1994 by Little, Brown and Company in Great Britain, this book has been translated in numerous languages, including an African version by A. Korg. Dedicated to his living and deceased children, grand children, great grand-children, and his comrades and fellows, this book remains a sharp, poignant, elegant and eloquent counter to the prevailing cynicism about the rottenness of politics. Emotive, compelling and uplifting, ‘Long walk to Freedom’ is the story of an epic life, a story of hardship, resilience and ultimate triumph against the most difficult and complex conflict of the 20th century. This book is unexpectedly, a sociological treasure trove, told with the clarity and eloquence of a born leader.

Frontier
Oct 9, 2018


Sritama Mandal iamsritama98@gmail.com

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