Nelson Mandela was speaking on Saturday July 27th, 2002 at a shindig in Cape
Town to celebrate a list of Africa's 100 best books of the 20th Century. As
part of the fanfare, Madiba received an award for the inclusion of Long
Walk to Freedom, his autobiography, on the list. In accepting his award,
"That [my] own autobiography features among them is
the only worrying aspect of an event that I would otherwise have found completely
inspiring and hopeful about the quality and future of the book in Africa.
"That political pamphlet was never intended for such august
"That it is counted amongst Africa's hundred books of last century
is hopefully a transparent piece of genuflection to the old age and grey hairs
of the author.
"I trust that future generations of writers and readers in Africa will understand it as such and not take it as a measure of the quality of African writing."
Madiba's self-deprecating humour is not easily found in his autobiography.
Always a charismatic speaker, perhaps it is only in his retirement that he has
become light-hearted. Understandably so, if indeed that is the case, for at
the time when he wrote it and up until his retirement in 1998, he carried an
Prior to the ANC's resounding victory in 1994, Madiba's public appearances
were not so frequent, definitely cautious. Many were still baying for his blood
and though the current government had offered several olive branches, Madiba
and his peers who had spent their lives crushed by apartheid, were prudent to
remain skeptical. The ball may have been in their court, but it was no use if
the umpire they were playing against walked off.
During Madiba's four year presidency, he had his work cut out. The South Africa
that Madiba inherited in 1994 was not a happy place. For many it still isn't.
Emulating Jesus' loaves and fishes miracle is not easy, but on top of trying
to do it, Madiba had to convince the world that he was not just another African
dictator. He had to prove that the decades of campaigning, bankrolling, and
ultimately, sanctions, had been worthwhile. He had to lead, as he had been chosen
to, and he had to lead well. Charisma is one thing, but light-heartedness often
would have been out of place, sometimes just plain insensitive.
Earning the respect of the world was easy: everybody wants to believe in their
hero. Earning the respect and trust of his countrymen on the other
hand, was a task akin to the loaves and fishes miracle. When he stepped down
In 1999, Madiba's spirit of optimism and hope, the ever-present sight of his
Madiba Shirts, above all his steadfast leadership, had won all but the hardest
of hearts of his countrymen.
Oppression is evil to the very core: it does not only victimise the oppressed, it victimises the oppressor too. Given the choice, would you rather be Hitler or a Jew in Nazi Germany? In my travels, I have become acutely aware that many people do not realise that it was not only black Africans who were silenced; we all were.
The History and local Geography taught in South African schools until the mid-1990's
is best described as slanted, I call it fictional. In 1991, I had heard of Stephen
Biko because I watched Cry Freedom while holidaying in England in 1989. I was
thirteen at the time, and didn't understand what I was watching. On February
10, 1991, I had not the foggiest idea who Nelson Mandela was, or why it was
a big deal. I was neither ignorant nor alone: if anything I was more informed
than my peers, for I recognised it as a good thing.
Madiba's speech continued, relating how he had written much of the work while
still within the confines of Robben Island. His Robben Island stay, as the book
relates, had two distinct halves. During the early years, Madiba and his fellow inmates
were subject to hard labour and lived under the harshest conditions imaginable1,
at the whim of their guards. When the South African government began to feel the weight of the world's outrage, Mandela and his cellmates were afforded Politcal Prisoner status and were exempt from labour. They were, however, given few other graces.
It must have been during these latter years, that Madiba was able to bribe his night duty warders with cups of coffee to allow him to write after dark. Certainly, during the earlier years, he would have had neither the coffee to offer, nor the paper to write on.
The book is a biography: it tells the story of Nelson Rolihlanhla Madiba Mandela's
life, from birth in 1918 to the point at which the National Party declared that it had accepted a democratic South Africa. It is a gripping
read, thankfully, as it's a rather long book. Through reading the book, you
will come to know Madiba as a humble man, yet amazing man.
Why, though, if he is so doubtful of its merits, is the book on the list? Indeed,
the narration, though pleasant, is far from exceptional. Mandela has a "nice"
style, that makes you think of him as an intelligent man who has done well for
himself with extremely limited means. He is, after all, a qualified lawyer.
Mandela's international profile is hardly in doubt, but the list has been compiled
by Africans, his peers. So why then the inclusion? The truth is, that, while
the book documents the life of one Nelson Mandela, As well as providing an idiot's
guide to Xhosa tribal life, it in fact documents, more accurately than most
available sources2, the history of the struggle in South Africa.
Excerpts from Long Walk to Freedom available online at
- A little license taken here. Many prisons defy imagination.
- In fact, the book is somewhat slanted towards ANC ideology, which is entirely forgivable given Mandela's position in the party. If reading the book for a history lesson, please bear that in mind.