Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Nelson Mandela started writing his autobiography while serving a life sentence in prison for plotting to overthrow the apartheid government of South Africa. The book was written secretly and a copy was discovered by prison authorities & confiscated. The original, however, was kept by two of his friends who were able to keep it safe until Mandela got out of prison. He restarted it after he was released from prison in 1990.

Long Walk to Freedom is a detailed account of Nelson Mandela’s life and was published in 1994. He describes his upbringing in the Transkei, a large territorial division in South Africa that had its own King and was part of the Xhosa nation. Although Mandela’s father could neither read nor write, he was a respected man and a custodian of Xhosa history. He was an esteemed counsellor to kings and placed great value on education.

When Mandela’s father died, the King became his guardian out of gratitude to his father. He treated Mandela as a son and gave him the opportunity to study law at university. This was not an opportunity that was available for many Africans. It was while attending university that he experienced firsthand the evils and restrictions of apartheid and in 1943 he decided to join the African National Congress (ANC) and take an active role in the struggle against apartheid.

‘To be an African in South Africa means that one is politicized from the moment of one’s birth…An African child is born in an Africans Only hospital, taken home in an African Only bus, lives in an African Only area and attends African Only schools, if he attends school at all. 

When he grows up, he can hold Africans Only jobs, rent a house in African Only townships, ride African Only trains and be stopped at any time of the day or night and be ordered to produce a pass, without which he can be arrested and thrown into jail. His life is circumscribed by racist laws and regulations that cripple his growth, dim his potential and stunt his life.’

The South African National Party government stepped up its implementation of the separation of races in 1948, cementing apartheid into law. The government, fearing the power of African unity, placed different races into ethnic enclaves, often forcibly, resulting in more than 80 percent of South Africa’s land being set aside for the whites who only made up about 13 percent of the population.

The author describes the irony of the government’s position when he observed that the Afrikaners had fought and died fighting against British Imperialism and now those same freedom fighters were persecuting the black Africans. The oppressed had become the oppressors.

The ANC grew over the years and used strikes, sit-ins and other non-violent methods of protests to bring about change but the government’s response was to clamp down even more with bans on ANC members restricting them to certain areas or putting them on house arrest.

In 1953 the government took over education which in the past was run by foreign churches and missions. These institutions had set up schools and provided opportunities for Africans to be educated since the early 1900’s. The government thought that black Africans should only be trained for menial jobs. This intervention restricted Africans to low-paying jobs and made it extremely difficult for them to escape poverty.

After years of non-violent struggle, the ANC made the decision to move into armed resistance, hoping to pressure the government and attract international attention and condemnation. They began plotting acts of sabotage on government facilities while trying to avoid loss of life. As a result, a State of Emergency was declared by the National Party and the media was banned from reporting on the situation.

‘…newspapers are only a poor shadow of reality; their information is important to a freedom fighter not because it reveals the truth, but because it discloses the biases and perceptions of both those who produce the paper and those who read it.’

The Sabotage Act of June 1962 was worded in such a broad way that an act of trespassing or illegal possession of weapons could result in a charge of sabotage. For some time Nelson Mandela went underground and became known as the ‘Black Pimpernel,’ but he was later captured, along with other leaders of the ANC, and put on trial. Each of the leaders expected the death penalty but by this time the rest of the world was starting to put pressure on the government with sanctions and embargoes and they were sentenced instead to life imprisonment.

‘Prison was a kind of crucible that tested a man’s character. Some men, under the pressure of incarceration, showed true mettle, while others revealed themselves as less than what they had appeared to be.’

Long Walk to Freedom is an incredibly detailed autobiography that covers Nelson Mandela’s earliest years through to his release from prison after twenty-seven years incarceration. It begins slowly and it took me a while to get my head around all the organisations, their acronyms and the many African and Afrikaner names the book contains. However, once I had read perhaps the first quarter of the book’s 768 pages it was riveting and I was annoyed that it had taken me so long to get to read it – my husband was given the book for his birthday in 1995 and read it back then.

There is so much I could say about this autobiography but I will just focus on some things that struck me most.

Nelson Mandela fought for a non racial South Africa, a ‘rainbow nation’ that included people of all races. He not only faced opposition from the National Party but also from his own people. The Pan Africanist Congress was born in 1959 and expressly rejected the multiracialism of the ANC. According to Mr. Mandela, they divided the people at a critical moment and that ‘their actions were motivated more by a desire to eclipse the ANC than to defeat the enemy.’

Apartheid, ‘apartness,’ besides being completely evil was actually ridiculous in its implementation. The campaign to improve conditions in prison became part of the apartheid struggle.

‘Like everything else in prison, diet is discriminatory. In general, Coloureds and Indians received a slightly better diet than Africans…So colour-conscious were the authorities that even the type of sugar and bread supplied to blacks and whites differed: white prisoners received white sugar and white bread, while Coloured and Indian prisoners were given brown sugar and brown bread.’

Black prisoners didn’t get sugar or bread!

Nelson Mandela was forty-six years of age when he was sent to prison for life but he always believed  that one day he would be free. In 1988, South Africa was still in turmoil and yet again under a State of Emergency. International pressure was increasing and secret talks began between the National Party, under President P. W. Botha, and Nelson Mandela. When the President resigned due to ill health, F.W. De Klerk took his place and it was felt that the tide had turned. But,

‘Despite his seemingly progressive actions, Mr de Klerk was by no means the great emancipator…He did not make any of his reforms with the intention of putting himself out of power…He was not prepared to negotiate the end of white rule.’

After much parleying between the ANC and the government, in 1990 President F.W. De Klerk released prisoners who had been gaoled for political reasons and Nelson Mandela was free at last.

‘As I finally walked through those gates to enter a car on the other side, I felt – even at the age of seventy-one – that my life was beginning anew. My ten thousand days of imprisonment were at last over.’ 

A perpetual struggle for Mandela was the impact of his involvement in the freedom movement upon his family. He paid a very high price for his stance.

‘The freedom struggle is not a higher moral order than taking care of your family. They are different.’ 

I was impressed with the graciousness of this man. At first he was angry at the white man, not at racism, but he outgrew his earlier outlook and recognised later that the young men in the Black Consciousness movement that surfaced in the 1970’s mirrored his own earlier ideas. As an elder statesman he saw his role as that of helping them move on from their sectarian ‘intermediate view that was not fully mature.’

When accused of using violence to gain his ends when he professed to be a Christian and was told that Martin Luther King never resorted to violence, he replied that,

‘…the conditions in which Martin Luther King struggled were totally different from my own: the United States was a democracy with constitutional guarantees of equal rights that protected non-violent protest (though there was still prejudice against blacks); South Africa was a police state with a constitution that enshrined inequality and an army that responded to non-violence with force.’

In 1994 the vote was given to the black people of South Africa for the very first time, the ANC won the country’s first democratic election and Nelson Mandela became President.

Long Walk to Freedom tells an incredible story and I highly recommend it. I’ve scheduled it in our modified Ambleside Online Year 11 this year.

Linking this post to the 2021 Nonfiction Challenge hosted by Book’d Out for the category of Biography.

15 thoughts on “Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

  1. Interesting comment about the difference between constitutional guarantee of equal rights that protected non-violent protest compared to police state w/ a constitutional inequality and military response to non-violence protest. Something to think about. (Boy, have things changed in America. Today Americans just bypass non-violent protest altogether. It's like we are just begging for a police state w/ military force. This is what happens, in part, when the Leftist state controls education.)Sorry, I just thought that was really interesting bc I read about Mandela's violent history. I do like biographies, so I would probably like this one, too. If you want to read anything about life during South Africa's apartheid, Kafir Boy by Mathabane is a great autobiography.


  2. Hi Ruth, I thought that was interesting, too. The National Party was supportive of the Nazi's during WWII and in 1948 they campaigned with a racist agenda. It made me think of Bonhoeffer and his involvement in the attempted assassination of Hitler. The ANC was supported by the Communists which influenced the West's outlook on the struggle…so many factors in play here!


  3. Hi Brian, yes, I agree with your comment. It's incredible to think that the changes were so recent & appalling that it took so long for the rest of the world to try to influence the situation. Frightening that a police state could control a whole country the way it did.


  4. You're welcome, Carol. I'm never sure whether to add a link or not since I've heard from some bloggers that they don't like it. But I always appreciate a link, so I keep putting them.And I understand with having to stop somewhere, I never know how to keep my posts short, it's a problem which already started in school. LOL


  5. Great review Carol. You remind me that I need to read more non-fiction. Coming of age in the 1980s, I was aware of Apartheid South Africa. There were protests on my college campus, lists of U.S. corporations that one should boycott because they would not divest from South Africa, many pop musicians wrote songs about it and publicized it. I was lucky enough to visit the country in the late ‘90s when Mandela was president.


  6. Hi Carol,I guess I have a different point of view of Mandela because of my family and friends that live there and in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie were propagators of the \”necklace\”. Winnie is filmed saying \”With our necklaces, and with our matches, we will free South Africa.\”A necklace is putting a tire around the neck of a person and setting it on fire. Mind you, the ANC did not do this to white people, but to other Africans who did not cooperate with their \”freedom\” activities.It's also sad to note that the Africans today under the now African governments are not better off than under the white governments and there is now an effort to systematically kill off all the white farmers.Part of this is because the different tribal nations in African countries do not feel a sense of loyalty to other tribes. The governing officials take care of their tribal nation and don't care about the others.For instance, Mandela belonged to the Q'oza (I can't spell it) tribe which is outnumbered by the Zulu tribe two to one. The Zulus were not champions of Mandela and the current government is not concerning itself with the welfare or education of the Zulus.


  7. Thanks, Ruthiella, one of my sons visited Sth Africa a couple of years ago – when Cape Town's water supply was ridiculously low. I've never been there but we almost ended up there instead of Australia when our family decided to emigrate from Scotland.


  8. Hi Sharon, in the book he mentioned Winnie's involvement/criminal charge relating to kidnapping and other things but he maintained her innocence.There has been an influx of South Africans here in recent years, especially those from Jo'berg and we have some friends from Zimbabwe. Our church has had an ongoing mission in Mozambique so we hear of the problems in those areas. The place is a basket case and yes, it doesn't seem to have improved much in many respects, but apartheid was a terrible system.I'd be interested in reading about things from another viewpoint as well. An autobiography is very subjective.


  9. Carol you have again reminded me I should really get around to reading this biography, I have looked at several times on the library shelf and thought I really needed to find to read this one, but have always felt a bit daunted by it.I noticed your comment on Shellyrae's blog and the problem with comments going to spam is hopefully fixed on my blog now. 🌻


  10. Hi Sharon, I saw my comment so I guessed you'd worked something out. I don't know why it has become an issue now. I've been commenting on W/Press sites for ages with no problems. Thanks for commenting here. It took me awhile to get into a good pace with this book but it was worth the effort.


  11. Pingback: April Blether | journey & destination

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