Long walk to Freedom

Long Walk to Freedom
Author Nelson Mandela
Publisher Macdonald Purnell
Year of Publication 1994
Pages 630
Reviewed by Safiullah Shahwani

Long Walk to Freedom is autobiography of the Nobel Peace Laureate Nelson Mandela. The book was written by the writer originally at Robben Island where he was imprisoned for 17 years out of his total 28 years’ incarceration at hands of white supremacist regime that had brutally imposed apartheid on the black majority of South Africa. The book is a wonderful account of courage, determination, adherence to principles, uprightness, consistency and domination of fear in nerve testing circumstances. As Mandela himself says, “I learned that courage was not absence of fear but triumph over it,” his life really speaks how beautifully he triumphed over fear to win freedom for his people, oppressed for around three centuries by Afrikaner white racists.

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 and was named Rohilhlaha (trouble-maker) by his father in a South African village in the province of Transkei only after six years of formation of African National Congress (ANC). Nelson Mandela was released from prison on 11th February, 1990 by the then ruling National Party’s president F.W. de Klerk who was jointly awarded Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993 for their efforts to reach out a peaceful settlement and transition of South Africa from a discriminatory, racist and apartheid regime to a democratic South Africa to be ruled on principle of majority vote and rule of law.

Nelson Mandela was born in Xhosa tribe. His father, Gadla Henry Mpkakanyiswa, was a tribal chief. The name Nelson Mandela was given to him by his school teacher Miss Mdingane, at Qunu, an African village where he acquired his initial education in a single room school. He, however, after the death of his father shifted to Mqkekezwani the provincial capital of Thembuland where he remained under guardianship of the Thembuland chief Jogindaba who treated him like one his sons and educated him in a missionary school. He was educated so that he could become a counsel to the King of Thembuland. Missionary schools established by Christian missionaries aimed at christinising people in colonized territories did prove a blessing in disguise by imparting modern education to the natives. This famous axiom translated their purpose vividly:  “To be Christian was to be civilised and to be civilised was to be Christian.” He attended the Clarkebury Boarding Institute and Fort Hare College. Mandela dramatically escaped an arranged marriage settled by his regent and skipped to Johannesburg where later he started practicing law at a firm.  

Speeches such as that of a tribal chief Dalindyebo made deepest impression on Mandela’s thought. After the traditional seclusion for circumcision, when Mandela and his age fellows were returning to the society, a party was organised for them. Dalindyebo was the chief speaker who pointing to these young men said, “There sit our sons, young, healthy and handsome, the flower of the Xhosa tribe, the pride of our nation. We have just circumcised them in a ritual that promises them manhood but I am here to tell you that it is an empty, illusory promise, a promise than can never be fulfilled. For we Xhosas, and all black South Africans, are a conquered people. We are slaves in our own country. We are tenants on our own soil. We have no strength, no power, no control over our own destiny in the land of our birth. They will go to the cities where they will live in shacks and drink cheap alcohol all because we have no land to give them where they could prosper and multiply. They will cough their lungs out deep in the bowels of the white man’s mines, destroying their health, never seeing the sun, so that the white man can live a life of unequaled prosperity. Among these young men are chiefs who will never rule because we have no power to govern ourselves; soldiers who will never fight for we have no weapons to fight with; scholars who will never teach because we have no place for them to study. The abilities, the intelligence, the promise of these young men will be squandered in their attempt to eke out a living doing the simplest, most mindless chores for the white man.”

Mandela joined ANC on the persuasion of colleague Mr. Gaur who believed that freedom could not be achieved through education alone and if that course is taken, it might take centuries. Therefore, he persuaded Mandela for political activism from the platform of ANC. After observing few of ANC’s meetings, Mandela formally participated in one of its rallies in August 1943 to only become one of its active members. He acquired a law degree and practiced law in Johannesburg where the plight of black people deeply moved him from within. He realized how brutally his people were enslaved and their opportunities of growth hampered by the discriminatory laws practiced by the state. Despite the services that missionary schools provided, they also preached the supremacy of Englishmen over others. In these institutions, Mandela maintains, ‘we aspired to be black Englishmen as we were sometimes decisively called. We were taught—and believed—that the best ideas were English ideas, the best government was English government, and the best men were English men.  The colonisers have always used religion for political leverage and so did the apartheid regime in South Africa where the policy was supported by the Dutch Reform Church, which furnished apartheid with its religious underpinnings by suggesting that Afrikaners—the white minority—were God’s chosen people and that blacks were a subservient species. In Afrikaner’s worldview, apartheid and the church went hand in hand.

How a state can become hostage at the hand of an exploitative minority was best exemplified by South African apartheid regime. The Group Areas Act—which required separate urban areas for each urban racial group gave state a pretext to snatch land of the black and give it to the white. In words of Mandela, In the past, whites took land by force; now they secured it by legislation.

Yet another tool to maintain its colonial grip over local people, the Apartheid regime introduced an hierarchical system of tribal chiefs appointed by the government. The idea was to restore power to traditional and mainly conservative ethnic leaders in order to perpetuate ethnic differences that were dying. Mandela maintains that laws stripping people of their rights were inevitably described as laws restoring those rights.

To curb people’s right to protest laws such as Public Safety Act were introduced which empowered government to declare martial law and to detain people without trial and the Criminal Laws Amendment Act which authorized corporal punishment for defiers.  The leaders who protested these laws, government propaganda vilified them, saying leaders of the campaign were living comfortable lives while the masses were languishing in jail.

The white supremacists also incentivized corrupt behaviours through encouraging black people to spy against black. This, Mandela maintains, was done by the black against their brethren owing to utter poverty that prevailed in South African society.

Yet another tactic utilized by all authoritarian and de facto regimes was media blackout of the legitimate voice of the political parties and political activists. This was also done to ANC where their statements, leaflets and viewpoints were not published by the printing press for fear of prosecution under Suppression of Communism Act. These and many other restrictions led Mandela and his other comrades to believe that peaceful struggle was not yielding desired results. He said: “A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left with no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At certain point, one can only fight fire with fire.”

Similarly, bribing the news industry is also a tool widespread in the tyrannical regimes and Apartheid regime did bribe the industry for desired ends. Mandela opined about such industry, saying: “Newspapers are only a poor shadow of reality; their information is important to a freedom fighter not because it reveals the truth, but because it discloses the biases and perceptions of both those who produce the paper and those who read it.”

He, however, was a staunch believer in the power of education as a source of upward social mobility in a peaceful society. He said: “Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation.”

However, education was not free from the racist hatred as government spent six times as much per white student as per African student and education was not compulsory for African students and free only in the primary grades. The white supremacist held the flawed view that African was inherently ignorant and lazy and no amount of education could remedy that. Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, an education minister, said that education must train and teach people in accordance with their opportunities in life, meaning that Africans did not and would not have any opportunities, therefore, why educate them.

The more African’s were oppressed the higher their hatred against the system emerged. Mandela maintains: “It stands to reason that an immoral and unjust legal system would breed contempt for its laws and regulations.” He was continuously held in hostage for his political beliefs by the authorities and was banned from practicing law. Observing the pathetic conditions that he underwent in the South African jails, he perhaps spoke a universal truth: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones—and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.”

One of the pretexts that was extended in defense of denying universal franchise to the South Africans was that voters should be educated to exercise this responsibility. Mandela says that to a narrow thinking persons, it is hard to explain that to be educated does not only mean being literate and having a B.A and that an illiterate man can be a far more educated voter than someone with an advanced degree.

Despite all its shortcomings and discriminatory laws, the judiciary in South Africa exercised great deal of freedom and professionalism. Many a times, ANC members were arrested on the pretext of being communist members and allegations of conspiring to overthrow the government. But the state could not defend its case and the accused were released. Mandela himself acknowledged this fact saying: “The court system, however, was perhaps the only place in South Africa where an African could possibly receive a fair hearing and where the rule of law might still apply.   

In support of his guerrilla warfare against state Mandela once said: “Pacifist refused to defend themselves even when violently attacked, but that was not necessarily the case with those who espoused nonviolence. Sometimes men and nations, even when non-violent, had to defend themselves when they were attacked.

After days long debate on non-violence as a tool and armed struggle, ANC executive committee gave green signal to Mandela to form a militant wing separate from ANC. Hence he found Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation)—or MK for short. Before launching his struggle, he went through all the literature on guerrilla warfare reading works of Che Guevara, Mao Tze-tung, Fidel Castro, The Revolt by Menchem Begin and many more.

To muster support for his armed struggle, Mandela travelled secretly to all African Nations, received training. After his arrest, Mandela’s story of incarceration is another inspiration for defying the unfavourable circumstances, hardships and stay mentally sound in the most challenging times. His days at Robin Island are a history. The book is a must read for the students of political science and to everyone who desires to understand the modern day tactics applied by oppressive regimes to subjugate the fundamental rights of their citizens for petty gains.

Long Walk to Freedom, Author Nelson Mandela Publisher Macdonald Purnell Year of Publication 1994 Pages 630 Reviewed by Safiullah Shahwani

The writer is the editor of http://www.bolantribune.com

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