Long Walk to freedom is the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, the first President and probably the most influential Presidents of South Africa. The book details his early life, coming of age, schooling, and 27 years in jail. The book has some glaring records of how the Apartheid not only affected the colonial mind but also the minds of the colonised. Mandela was treated terribly under the apartheid government and imprisoned on the notorious Robben Island for his role as the leader of the then-outlawed ANC. His struggle on Robben Islands is an insight into what a handful of motivated young minds can achieve. For restoring the once segregated society of the country torn not only on the lines of races but also divided amongst various tribes, he later received international recognition for his leadership as president. He was instrumental in pushing for freedom of South Africa and the spiritual figurehead of the anti-apartheid movement. He is respected around the world as a key force in the movement for human rights and racial equality.
The only memoir written during the lifetime of Mandela, the book is a testament to the greatness of South Africa’s first black president. The incredible and heroic life of Nelson Mandela not only inspires but also educates people on subjects like dignity and integrity and tells us how a young revolutionary mellows down to a mature statesman.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
– Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom
Mandela describes his upbringing as a child and adolescent in South Africa in the first part of the autobiography. Mandela grew up in an affluent tribe, as the son of the counsellor to the acting king of the Thembu tribe. Although he did not see his father much due to the Tribal culture where mothers were always closer to the kids and fathers were more of an adjudicating disciplining functionary. Rolihlahla, which is roughly translated as ‘pulling the branch of a tree or a euphemism for troublemaker,’ was his childhood name. His father sent him to school when Mandela was old enough, which was a relatively uncommon luxury for a child in his village. Mandela excelled at school and an uncle paid for him in a series of prestigious boarding schools to pursue his studies. The rebel nature of Mandela showed itself early on when he ran away to become a lawyer against the will of his Father. Much like most feudal societies, this meant a rebellion of grievous nature and “Thembi” had rebelled against his people and his father.
Mandela outlines his young adulthood in the next two parts of the book and his eventual transformation into a leader of the independence movement in South Africa. Mandela moved to Johannesburg as a young man and became involved in an organisation that campaigned for the interests of black South Africans, the African National Congress (ANC). In the Youth League of the ANC, a subgroup that promoted more progressive values than the main organisation. He has served on the Executive Committee of the Transvaal ANC. He and other young believers in “militant African nationalism” were seeking to persuade Dr. A.B. Xuma, the president of the ANC, to take a more activist stand on black political equality. A stand taken by a younger more impressionable mind much like our own Revolutionary heroes like Bhagat Singh and Ashfaqullah Khan. Towards the end of his journey though he knew political revolutions come through the mind and less through the arms.
The National Party came to power in South Africa in 1948 and introduced apartheid. In World War II, the Afrikaners who sympathised with the Nazis were now ascendant. The Nationalists soon banned the Communist Party of South Africa and introduced several laws to limit the black population. Mandela and his ANC comrades started to engage in civil disobedience in response. Soon, the police detained Mandela and briefly confined him. He was arrested again later on and put on trial with other members of the ANC. The court found them to be guilty of “statutory” communism, that somehow meant government opposition for a capitalist government which filled its coffers at the cost of Indian sweat and African blood.
By 1952, with Oliver Tambo, a tribesman from Pondoland in the Transkei, Mandela had launched a law firm. They were denigrated as “kaffir” lawyers by the authorities, a racist slander. In several police abuse cases, their firm represented blacks. Although the lawyer would often lose, the revolutionary would always triumph. As can be seen with the number of people who would herd around him on every arrest and would fill up the streets on every trial with the deafening slogans of “Madiba.” The Nationalist government resettled blacks from their urban homes to distant rural regions in 1953, as part of apartheid. Whites migrated to historically black neighbourhoods, taking over pleasant homes that were formerly occupied by well-to-do blacks in several instances. In response, Mandela called for an end to passive resistance. Mandela and 155 other leaders, including nearly every ANC official, were arrested by the South African security police in 1956. The charge was high treason, however, awaiting trial, the leaders were released. In pretrial hearings, prosecutors alleged that Mandela and the ANC wanted a Russian-style government to replace the government. Eventually, ninety-five defendants faced trial. The government relocated the pending trial to Pretoria, adding a new indictment, accusing the defendants of plotting violence against the state.
In 1961, Mandela was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment for urging people to strike and leaving the nation without a passport. However, Mandela was shortly thereafter sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage in what was known as the “Rivonia Trial” by Justice Dr. Quartus de Wet, instead of a possible death sentence. Mandela describes prison time on Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison. His 27 years tenure in prison was marked by the cruelty of Afrikaner guards, backbreaking labour, sleeping in minuscule cells and his longing to see his wife and kids especially his son with whom he used to box. Mandela was to spend a total of twenty-seven years in captivity, most of them in the notorious prison on Robben Island, the harshest outpost of the South African penal system, spent doing hard labour in extremes of heat and cold and only one letter and one visitor every six months, and that too for half an hour, through a thick, glass partition. Nelson Mandela just like Gandhi was in favour of keeping the body as strong as the mind. Although the leader with a stick suggested walks, for a much sportier Mandela, boxing was a sport which taught you not only how strong in body you should be but also taught you to stand strong even when winded and tactics you need to fight. A lesson reflected throughout his life.
Then, following the momentous events of 1994, Nelson Mandela vividly re-created the drama of the experiences that helped shape his destiny: the years operating undercover, effectively classed as a ‘terrorist’ by the state; the surprisingly eventful quarter-century behind bars, when his dedication to the cause elevated him to a status of martyr, icon and inspiration; and the astonishing moves towards the ANC’s near-landslide victory in the breakthrough multi-racial elections of April 1994, when Mandela became South Africa’s first-ever black President. (Davidson E Innocent, Book Review: Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Proceedings_Rev/mndela_rvw.html).
From every page of the Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela’s humanity shines, a humanity connected to the generosity of heart, a resolve to find something positive in every human being and an unwavering optimism: “I never seriously considered the possibility that I would not emerge from prison one day,” he writes. “I never thought that a life sentence truly meant life and that I would die behind bars…! always knew that someday I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine a free man.”
Mandela was not just a fighter for the liberty of South Africa; he was a symbol of peaceful coexistence, for the whole world. Mandela wanted the apartheid chains that had destroyed the African community to be abolished. Nelson distinguished himself by his ability to overcome the obviously erroneous desire to conform to the method. His greatness lies in the fact that he treated the oppressive White man as an equal. He did not conform to the system of black superiority as an answer to white superiority. His idea of equality was so profound that he treated his oppressors with the respect which would often change the oppressors as well. An incident where the white officer uncuffs him and allows him to meet his wife even though this prisoner could have run is a testimony to how Nelson Mandela through his firm resolve could stand up against the oppressor and in certain cases even change that oppressor.
From today’s point of view, Mandela will always be considered a true warrior who fought against injustice and exploitation of the Africans and when his people came to power did not let them exploit and be unjust to the Afrikaners left in South Africa paving the way towards two racial communities coexisting with each other in a perfect “salad bowl” society.
The writer is a practising lawyer with a major practice in the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court. Alumni of Faculty of Law Aligarh Muslim University and winner of major national debates, he has always been involved in protecting the rights of the people and making people aware of their rights.