Long Walk to Freedom -The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

“This is the land where the Pharaoh died”. Madiba didn’t come from ancient Egypt. He grew up at the other end of the continent in the 1920s, born July 18, 1918.  Xhosa children. Advertising makes it taste better.

He was Xhosa nation, Thembu tribe, Madiba clan.  Zulu.  We are all Zulu.  Those that know me, and who have stayed with me on the long walk, sometime address me as “Madiba” although my name is “Nelson Mandela”.

His father named him Rolihlahla, but you can’t even get a driver’s license.  A grade school teacher laid “Nelson” on the boy, and that’s when everything changed.  He’d never been Nelson before.  What did it mean?


Suddenly you’re 16 and it’s ritual and it’s a crazy guy with an assegai, the short stabbing spear with the flat, double-edged blade.  Hi crazy guy!  It’s Transkei Saturday night. “Ndiyindoda!

“Which we were trained to say in the moment of circumcision.  Seconds later, I heard Justice’s strangled cry pronounce the same phrase.  There were now two boys before the ingcibi reached me, and my mind must have gone blank because before I knew it the old man was kneeling in front of me.  I looked directly into his eyes. He was pale, and though the day was cold, he was shining with perspiration.  His hands moved so fast they seemed to be controlled by an otherworldly force.  Without a word, he took my foreskin, pulled it forward, and then, in a single motion, brought down his assegai.”

Twenty-eight years later.  You’re forty-four years old.  You’re in the prime of life and doing great.  You’ve been at it a while.  You’re a professional.  You have one of the strangest jobs in South Africa, lawyering in a lawless land and sure, why not, you’re a second class citizen, not even a citizen at all really, some sort of weird puppet in the fantasy camp of apartheid and it builds up and you don’t like it. You’ve been making your way and there’s no shortage of people looking for justice.

Suddenly you’re jailed and you stay jailed for twenty-seven years (1963 – 1990).  The charge is treason.  When you’re let out you’re 71.

This is one of the toughest things to understand in this book, this autobiography.  How did Nelson Mandela maintain his composure through twenty-seven years of jail?

Strength of character. Determination. Unity. Discipline. Somehow these virtues don’t adequately explain it. They sound like clichés, but it’s the slow drip of resistance. Madiba knew the law, which confounded his jailers and those who gave them their orders. And towards the end even he, Nelson Mandela, knew the time had come for armed struggle.

International support helped. You couldn’t buy South African brandy or wine or helicopters or anything else for a long time. No rutabagas or plantains. No barber razor. The white guys were going crazy because they just couldn’t fix it. Stuttering in their paranoia. They burned his house down in his absence.

“I was tense about seeing Mr. Botha. He was known as die Groot Krokodil–the Great Crocodile–and I had heard many accounts of his ferocious temper. He seemed to me to be the very model of the old-fashioned, stiff-necked, stubborn Afrikaner who did not so much discuss matters with black leaders as dictate to them.”

A month later Botha resigned.  F.W. deKlerk, the last apartheid president, took over. Inside of five years the first one-person-one-vote elections were held. After more than three hundred years minority rule ended. The new National Assembly elected as its first leader—Nelson Mandela.  Mark Twain was right. Truth is stranger than fiction. I thought that was Confucius but I was wrong.  What else have I been wrong about?

None of it meant everything was suddenly solved in South Africa.  It still hasn’t been. Friends who were in Johannesburg recently mentioned armed guards in the restaurant where they dined one night. You know, to be on the safe side. But that’s no reflection on what Madiba achieved.

Nelson Mandela lived to 95. Long Walk to Freedom was published in 1994. It hasn’t lost anything.




Author: Steven Brown


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