Long Walk to Freedom is the autobiography of Nelson Mandela whose name is written next to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln in the books of history. While Gandhi tussled for his country’s freedom, Lincoln championed the rights of the blacks, and Mandela fought for both.
Mandela’s autobiography was published in 1995, one year after South Africa held its first democratic elections that saw Mandela become the first black president. The memoir begins with his birth in Mvezo, a tiny village in the district of Umtata, and concludes with the liberation of millions of blacks from the British. In between, lies Mandela’s walk to freedom.
In the first few chapters, Mandela speaks of his childhood spent herding cattle, fighting with friends, playing games like naize (hide and seek), and following the conservative customs of Xhosa tribe that he belonged to. For instance, Xhosa boys were taught to follow the footsteps of their fathers and girls of their mothers.
Further in the book, he mentions his father Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa Mandela, who played a pivotal role in getting him educated. Though he was illiterate, he decided to send his young son to a schoolhouse. When Gadla is first introduced in the autobiography, he comes across as a man who is emotionally distant from his family. But as the story progresses, this assumption is soon proven to be wrong. As a child growing up in a tribal hamlet, Mandela had a blanket for a uniform, wrapped around his shoulders that stretched up to his knees. But Gadla wanted his son to be suitably dressed for school. So, he alters one of his trousers and gives it to Mandela. Here, Mandela reveals how one of his teachers gave him his first name Nelson, to make his African name sound easier for the whites to pronounce.
In the next few chapters, Mandela describes his days at the university, where his education was funded by his uncle, and speaks of his passion for long-distance running and boxing. Then, the story takes a U-turn. Mandela tells the reader of a series of unexpected events that stops him from pursuing a law degree, and takes him to Johannesburg, where he joins the African National Congress (ANC), an organisation that fought for the rights of the black in South Africa.
The year was 1948, when racial segregation spread its wings wide in the country. The blacks were forced to live in tiny reservations called homelands, unless they carried an official permit to work in a ‘white area’. African, mixed-race, and Indian South Africans were banned from boarding all-white buses, enter all-white recreation areas, or even dine with white friends. Separate educational systems were created for the blacks. And as if that weren’t enough, interracial relationships were proclaimed illegal.
These cruel apartheid laws brought the lives of the black community to a standstill. But not Mandela’s. He instituted the Defiance Campaign in 1951, to defeat the wildfire of apartheid. Mandela describes how his organisation and volunteers peacefully boarded all-white trains and peacefully marched in the neighbourhoods designated for the whites—and went to prison. By this time, Mandela had already become a symbol of hope.
In the remainder of Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela speaks about the 27 years he spent in the prison. He writes: “In those early years, isolation became a habit. We were routinely charged for the smallest infractions and sentenced to isolation.” Further, he reveals the cruelty of white supremacists who murdered many ANC leaders, many of who were Mandela’s close friends. But this did not deter Mandela from holding the first democratic elections in South Africa. He even succeeded in becoming the first black president of the country. But his journey did not end here, it was just the beginning of another—to take his country from good to great.
Through his descriptive storytelling, Mandela manages to paint a picture of his struggle for his people. All in all, Long Walk To Freedom is a strong reminder of why the world can never forget a hero like Mandela. His story of tremendous courage and stellar leadership not only presents what it costs to earn freedom, but also what it takes to be accountable for the responsibility that follows it.