A long life with Freedom as the end goal: Long Walk to Freedom is an apt title for Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. If you are deterred by 700+ page tomes, do not let that put you off. Mandela is highly readable; the chapters are short--possibly a result of having been written surreptitiously in prison. In fact, when the initial part of the manuscript was discovered in a tin can buried in his prison garden, Mandela lost four years of educational privileges for the writing of it.
“Prison is a still point in a turning world,” he wrote, “and it is very easy to remain in the same place in jail while the world moves on.” With this astute observation, Mandela sets the stage for his intense efforts and those of his fellow prisoners to resist the stagnation of the oppressive life on Robben Island. The camaraderie and fellowship of the prisoners and their mutual commitment to the educating and challenging of one another is remarkable, especially with the divisive efforts of the wardens. Despite differences and conflicts of interest, many of these men grew stronger for their perseverance and served well the ultimate freeing of South Africa.
Long Walk to Freedom is necessarily lengthy. It starts with Mandela’s birth and destined role of counselor to royals in Qunu (Eastern Cape). The span of his life is sadly marked by a negative sign of progress. On his return to Qunu after his release, he observed:
When I was young, the village was tidy, the water pure and the grass green and unsullied as far as the eye could see. Kraals were swept, the topsoil was conserved, fields were neatly divided. But now the village was unswept, the water polluted and the countryside littered with plastic bags and wrappers. We had not known of plastic when I was a boy, and though it surely improved life in some ways, its presence in Qunu appeared to me to be a kind of blight. Pride in the community seemed to have vanished.
With so much time being covered, Mandela does a creditable job of making his memoir personal as well as public. He was a party man and a freedom fighter. He was a father and a husband. He chose the good of the greater over his own personal good, and as in the case of many great leaders, his family paid a high price.
His sympathy for his wife, Winnie’s, stressful life being married to such a man is revealed and he credits her with greater suffering than he endured. “She married a man who soon left her (for prison); that man became a myth; and then that myth returned home and proved to be just a man after all.“ How lightly he passes over the 27 years in that perception of her difficult position. He continues: “. . . it seems to be the destiny of freedom fighters to have unstable personal lives. When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made.”
As I read those words, my mind immediately went to King David and his own freedom fighting and troubled family. I have compared Mandela’s leadership style to David in another blog, and this is yet a further parallel.
My purpose is not to condense or paraphrase this noteworthy memoir. It must be read and savoured. The theme of Freedom is consistent throughout, as in the title. Years of confinement taught him more about Freedom than most of us who take it for granted daily. He shares his lessons generously:
Of those taking advantage of political unrest in order to loot and profit he warned:
Freedom without civility, freedom without the ability to live in peace, was not true freedom at all.
Of those who imprison others to protect themselves he said:
A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.
Much wisdom is bound in the pages of Long Walk. It should be read often and out loud. If Nelson Mandela’s challenges were being listened to by his beloved party even now, South Africa would sooner take her place among those worthy to teach other nations about living in Freedom and Ubuntu.
He warned his people not to expect the government to provide unilaterally for them:
I challenged them; I did not patronize them: “If you want to continue living in poverty without clothes and food,” I told them, “then go and drink in the shebeens. But if you want better things, you must work hard. We cannot do it all for you; you must do it yourselves.”
Would that such wisdom were heeded in all countries resulting in restored Dignity which Mandela believed was the other side of Freedom’s coin.