Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom

Nelson Mandela is dead; long live Nelson Mandela.

He is assured of a long life in death. Future generations will pore over his words and take inspiration and example just as we have.

My own first serious acquaintance with Mandela’s own words started in New Delhi’s Connaught Circus, eighteen years ago. I came across a rather wonderful bookstall and a shiny new copy of Mandela’s new memoir Long Walk to Freedom facing up at me. I picked it up and it has been with me ever since – now dog-eared and held together with sellotape, and as treasured as when I read it that first time.

It is a remarkable book, telling Mandela’s own story from his birth to the Thembu royal family in the Transkei in 1918, through a European-style education, practice as a lawyer, the freedom struggle, long imprisonment and then engagement with the government, and ultimately his inauguration as South Africa’s President on 10 May 1994.

In telling his own story, Mandela also tells the story of South Africa and the history of apartheid.

That side of the story really begins with the arrival of the abelungu, the white people, who, in words Mandela attributes to the Thembu Chief Joyi, “arrived from across the sea with fire-breathing weapons” and “took the land as you might seize another man’s horse”. Parallels with the American Indian experience are striking all the way through this story (except, for now, with the ending).

Another Thembu Chief, Meligqili, who performed Mandela’s circumcision ceremony in 1934 or 1935 when he was sixteen, is quoted then as saying: 

“’We have just circumcised them in a ritual that promises them manhood, but I am here to tell you that it is an empty, illusory promise, a promise that can never be fulfilled. For we Xhosas, all the black South Africans, are a conquered people. We are slaves in our own country. We are tenants on our own soil. We have no strength, no power, no control over our own destiny in the land of our birth. They will go to cities where they will live in shacks and drink cheap alcohol, all because we have no land to give them where they could prosper and multiply. They will cough their lungs out deep in the bowels of the white man’s mines, destroying their health, never seeing the sun, so that the white man can live a life of unequalled prosperity.’”

But after being taken under the guardianship of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, Mandela was given a European-style education. He became a lawyer and in 1952 started up the first African law practice in South Africa with his friend and fellow ANC activist Oliver Tambo. This was just a few years after the National Party government of Dr Daniel Malan had come to power in 1948 on a hostile platform of formalised apartheid (with the slogans: ‘Die kaffer op sy plek’ (‘the nigger in his place’) and ‘Die koelies uit die land’ (‘the coolies out of the country’).

Mandela says:

“Africans were desperate for legal help in government buildings: it was a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the streets after 11 p.m., a crime not to have a pass book and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live.
“Every week we interviewed old men from the countryside who told us that generation after generation of their family had worked a bleak piece of land from which they were now being evicted. Every week we interviewed old women who brewed African beer as a way to supplement their tiny incomes, who now faced jail terms and fines they could not afford to pay. Every week we interviewed people who had lived in the same house for decades only to find that it was now in what was declared a white area and they had to leave without any recompense. Every day we heard and saw the thousands of humiliations that ordinary Africans confronted every day of their lives.”

The basis of apartheid had been set many years before in legislation, starting with the 1913 Land Act, which ultimately deprived blacks of 87 per cent of the territory in the land of their birth. Much more followed, including the Urban Areas Act of 1923, which created African slums, called ‘native locations’, in order to supply cheap labour to white industry; the Colour Bar Act of 1926, which banned Africans from practising skilled trades; the Native Administration Act of 1927, which made the British Crown the supreme chief over all African areas; and, in 1936, the Representation of Natives Act, which removed Africans from the common voters’ roll in the Cape.

But Malan’s nationalists took all this to another level after the Second World War, which the former Boer commander General Jan Smuts had taken South Africa into on the Allied side. 

Mandela takes up the story:
“Within weeks of coming to power, the Nationalist government pardoned Robey Leibbrandt, the wartime traitor who had organized uprisings in support of Nazi Germany. The government announced their intention to curb the trade union movement and do away with the limited franchises of the Indian, Coloured and African peoples. The Separate Representation of Voters Bill eventually robbed the Coloureds of their representation in Parliament. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act was introduced in 1949 and was followed in rapid succession by the Immorality Act, making sexual relations between white and nonwhite illegal. The Population and Registration Act labelled all South Africans by race, making colour the single most important arbiter of an individual. Malan introduced the Group Areas Act – which he described as ‘the very essence of apartheid’ – requiring separate urban areas for each racial group. In the past, whites took land by force; now they secured it by legislation.”

Even before the Nationalists came to power, the government was spending around six times as much per head on white students as African students. But in 1953 the government transferred African education from the Department of Education to the Native Affairs Department, making it part of the apartheid system, reducing money for African schools operated by Church and mission bodies and banning African teachers from criticising the government or any school authority. “It was intellectual baaskap, a way of institutionalizing inferiority,” Mandela says.

Six years on, Parliament passed the Promotion of Bantu Self Government Act, which created eight separate ethnic Bantustans, or ‘homelands’, and the Extension of University Education Act, which barred nonwhites from racially ‘open’ universities. Mandela says: “Under the new policy, even though two-thirds of Africans lived in so-called white areas, they could have citizenship only in their own ‘tribal homelands’. The scheme gave us neither freedom in white areas nor independence in what they deemed ‘our’ areas.”

The ANC and its partner organisations had heated debates on how to react to the gathering storm of oppression, specifically on whether or not to continue with non-violent action as advocated by Mahatma Gandhi’s son Manilal, editor of the newspaper Indian Opinion. Mandela writes that during the early 1950s, “I began to suspect that both legal and extra-constitutional protests would soon be impossible. In India, Gandhi had been dealing with a foreign power that ultimately was more realistic and far-sighted. That was not the case with the Afrikaners in South Africa. Non-violent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do. But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end. For me, non-violence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.”

In 1961 the ANC made the decision to set up Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation) to conduct a campaign of sabotage. The Nationalists responded by putting the last pieces of a police state in place with the Sabotage Act in 1962 and the Ninety-Day Detention Law in 1963.

At the Rivonia trial of 1963-4, which sent Mandela and colleagues to Robben Island on life terms, Mandela said,

“We of the ANC have always stood for a non-racial democracy, and we shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart than they already were. But the hard facts were that fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights. It may not be easy for this court to understand, but it is a fact that for a long time the people had been talking of violence – of the day when they would fight the white man and win back their country, and we, the leaders of the ANC, had nevertheless always prevailed upon them to avoid violence and to use peaceful methods.”

But it was prison that perhaps brought out the best in Mandela. Archbishop Desmond Tutu for example has written: “I maintain his prison term was necessary because when he went to jail, he was angry. He was relatively young and had experienced a miscarriage of justice; he wasn't a statesperson, ready to be forgiving: he was commander-in-chief of the armed wing of the party, which was quite prepared to use violence.”

There are beautiful moments in the book when Mandela reflects on some of his prison experiences. One concerns Colonel Piet Badenhorst, who was appointed commanding officer of the Robben Island prison in 1970. Badenhorst had a reputation for being brutal and authoritarian, and he was later transferred after judges were called in to investigate assaults in the general section.

Mandela writes:
“A few days before Badenhorst’s departure, I was called to the main office. General Steyn was visiting the island and wanted to know if we had any complaints. Badenhorst was there as I went through a list of demands. When I had finished, Badenhorst spoke to me directly. He told me that he would be leaving the island, and added, ‘I just want to wish you people good luck.’ I do not know if I looked dumbfounded, but I was amazed. He spoke these words like a human being, and showed a side of himself we had never seen before. I thanked him for his good wishes, and wished him luck in his endeavours.
“I thought about this moment for a long time afterwards. Badenhorst had perhaps been the most callous and barbaric commanding officer we had had on Robben Island. But that day in the office, he had revealed there was another side to his nature, a side that had been obscured but that still existed. It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their hearts are touched, they are capable of changing. Ultimately, Badenhorst was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behaviour.”

Mandela also took pleasure in gardening while on the Island.

He says: “A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom.

“In some ways, I saw the garden as a metaphor for certain aspects of my life. A leader must also tend his garden; he, too, sows seeds, and then watches, cultivates and harvests the result. Like the gardener, a leader must take responsibility for what he cultivates; he must mind his work, try to repel enemies, preserve what can be preserved and eliminate what cannot succeed.”

Mandela came to recognise that politics isn’t just ‘politics’ but is everywhere, in our personal behaviour, in how we do everyday things – that people’s minds are changed this way as much as by pontificating and speechifying.

“Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”


  1. prof premraj pushpakaran writes -- 2018 marks the 100th birth year of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela!!!


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