Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. A book that will induce a mindfuck.

It spans several decades of South Africa's moral growth and one really had to marvel at the tenacity and stubborness that drives Mr. Mandela.

Born in Transkei on July 18, 1918, Mandela was given the Xhosa name of Rolihlahla. He describes his childhood in the countryside of South Africa, tracing his ancestry with the Thembu tribe.

From the local school, to The Clarkebury Institute, to The University College of Fort Hare, Mandela felt the stirrings of the idea of freedom and equality and the identity of being South African, regardless of tribe or race. He says that being politicised was a gradual inevitability, and not something he woke up to one day.

When he graduate from Law School, he was already heavily involved with the ANC (African National Congress). He was out-spoken, a little brash at first, and filled with idealism. His marriage to his first wife Evelyn did not up survive his commitment to the freedom movement for Africans.

A few more chapters later... It fascinates me that the ANC had a policy of non-violence to protest against apartheid. Not on moral or religious principles... but as a tactic. But is was the basis for which Mandela and co. won their treason trial 1958-1959. But non-violence as a tactic was not working any more, so Mandela was given the task of forming an army called the MK (Umkhonto we Siwze). Using sabotage, querrilla warfare, terrorism and open revolution, they hoped that they could bring apartheid down...

Still to come: his trial, lengthy prison term on Robbem Island and finally freedom. I am still re - reading the book.

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, he said:

"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 reading circles.
"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 unenviable cross.

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


  1. A little license taken here. Many prisons defy imagination.
  2. 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.

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