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.