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Nelson Mandela - Long Walk to Freedom

Updated on March 3, 2014

The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

Long Walk to Freedom is the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected President of South Africa. His vivid, and often moving, descriptions bring to life the influences that shaped one of the great leaders of our time.

Click here for loads of books about Black history and Black achievers.

Check out the Nelson Mandela National Museum and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum at my list of museums in Africa.

Live Coverage: Nelson Mandela Memorial Service - Broadcast from South Africa

Mandela is remembered by world leaders.

President Obama at Robben Island
President Obama at Robben Island

A Light Has Gone Out

Death of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is dead. A light has gone out from the world.

Nelson Mandela was laid to rest at his ancestral homeland a few weeks ago, following several days of memorial events. World leaders remembered and celebrated his life. Mandela died at his home in Johannesburg following a long period of illness. At the age of 95, Mandela was very frail. He had been hospitalized three times last year.

I remember, during the 1980s, while Mandela was still in prison, the non-stop 24-hour picket of the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square, London which continued for years. I can remember joining the picket and, once, reciting my poetry while standing on the picket line.

In those days, Black people in South Africa were not allowed to gather except at funerals. So funerals became impromptu protests attracting vast crowds.

Despite the daily brutality and humiliation which he and millions of South Africans suffered under apartheid, and the 27 years he spent in a prison cell, Mandela remained committed to forgiving his oppressors. He achieved the seemingly impossible - he brought about the end of apartheid without the shedding of blood.

Mandela is now an ancestor. May he long continue to guide us.

President Obama said, "We've lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth," Obama said. "He no longer belongs to us -- he belongs to the ages."

President Obama and the First Lady met with Mandela's family on their visit to South Africa.

President Obama said he felt "deeply humbled" when he visited Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned.

Woolies and Soweto Gospel Choir: Madiba Tribute

Woolies and Soweto Gospel Choir: Madiba Tribute. Very moving tribute to Nelson Mandela.

Very moving tribute to Nelson Mandela by the Soweto Gospel Choir.

Nelson Mandela: The Fight For Freedom - BBC Documentary - BBC Documentary

Dear Mandela Trailer

Dear Mandela is a documentary examining the current situation in South Africa. Black people are still the poorest in the society, nearly 20 years after the end of apartheid. This film shows people being evicted from their homes in shanty towns, despite eviction being unconstitutional in South Africa.

Dear Mandela asks what Nelson Mandela would think about the fact that the changes he fought for, and for which he was imprisoned for 27 years, have not been implemented as yet.

Dear Mandela asks what Nelson Mandela would think about the fact that the changes he fought for, and for which he was imprisoned for 27 years, have not been implemented as yet.

Books about Nelson Mandela - The Life and Work of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela in Traditional Clothes
Nelson Mandela in Traditional Clothes

A Country Boy

Following the death of his father, Mandela had been brought up under the guardianship of a local chief, whom he calls "the regent". The regent treated Mandela as his own son, educating him at some of the best schools.

In this rural environment, tribal ties were still very important, as was the feudal hierarchy. Mandela was treated with deference because of his relationship to the regent. He identified himself as a Thembu, rather than an African or even a South African.

He describes the importance of traditional rituals such as the circumcision ceremony, which was necessary in order for a boy to attain the status of an adult. However, a local chief, during a public ceremony welcoming the new adult males back to the village, declared that they would never truly be men. Under the rules of apartheid, they would always be treated as children.

A Good Education

The schools Mandela attended were funded by the Methodists. Similarly, Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta was given a scholarship by Methodists. She went on to pen over 20 novels. In this interview with Buchi, she emphasises the importance of education for all women.

Mandela believed it was important to have a degree in order to be a leader. But as an adult, he soon learned that the best-informed people he met had not necessarily had formal education.

Black Books - Books about the Black Experience

Second Class Citizen
Second Class Citizen
A young Nigerian woman shares a house in London with other Nigerians who tell her she should accept her status in Britain as a second-class citizen.

The Arranged Marriage

It was only fitting that the regent should arrange Mandela's marriage along with that of his son before passing away. But the two youths had other ideas.

Ever-Present Apartheid

Running away was a complicated business. They could not travel to or enter a major city such as Johannesburg without the proper documents. As they didn't have them, they had to lie, deceive and connive, and were humiliated every time they were found out.

Mandela makes it clear that, even before the most oppressive laws were put in place, apartheid contaminated every aspect of life for Black South Africans.

He states, "To be an African in South Africa means that one is politicized from the moment of one's birth ... an African child is born in an Africans Only hospital, taken home in an Africans Only bus, lives in an Africans Only area and attends Africans Only schools, if he atends school at all.

"When he grows up, he can hold Africans Only jobs, rent a house in Africans Only townships, ride Africans Only trains and be stopped at any time of the day or night and be ordered to produce a pass, without which he can be arrested and thrown in jail."

This echoes the experience of African American people, which is one reason why, like Mandela's election, the election of President Obama is such an exceptionally important moment in history.

To read more about life under apartheid, see Black History: Life under Apartheid.

The Dalit people of India suffer many of the same restrictions. They experience terrible poverty and discrimination, but heir story is little-known outside of India. To read more, see Dr. Ambedkar, Visionary.

Unity and Diversity

Mandela describes living in abject poverty, paying for his housing and transport as well as his university education from his meagre wage. As an African, he was not allowed to live in the city, but had to live in a township and commute back and forth in an Africans-only bus. He only owned one suit, which had been given to him by a colleague, and he often only had one hot meal per week, provided by his landlord.

He describes the terrible living and working conditions of the many African men who travelled from all over the country as well as various Southern African countries to find employment in South Africa's mines. This situation still continues to this day and contributes to the spread of HIV and AIDS in South Africa. For more on this, see What Can We Learn from Elton John?

Working as an articled clerk in a law firm, he was able to escape the fate of working in the mines.

The South African government's policy was to divide people according to their racial and cultural backgrounds. The hostels in which men lived while working in the mines were often divided according to tribal groupings, as part of the divide-and-rule policy to encourage divisive attitudes.

But as an adult living in a township, Mandela learned to identify himself, not only as a Thembu, but as an African united with other Africans.

Working with the ANC, he learned the importance of working alongside Asians and mixed-race people (known as "coloureds"), who were all affected by apartheid, albeit in different ways.

Mandela the Peacemaker

Mandela is renowned as a peacemaker. President Obama is another leader in this mould.

Although humiliated for many years in South African prisons, Mandela retained his dignity and won the respect of his guards. Although the ANC, the political party of which he was a leader, decided they had to resort to violence due to the failure of their long-term efforts to find a nonviolent solution, in the end, Mandela emphasised the need to have one South Africa for all of its citizens, and forgiveness rather than reprisals.

Nelson Mandela and Football

South African Black Prisoners Play Football

Football (soccer) was an important part of prison life for Black prisoners under apartheid.

Although not allowed to play himself, Nelson Mandela was instrumental in organising the prison football teams on Robben Island.

The prisoners had their own football league, which played according to FIFA rules. At first, they built their stadium from flotsam they found on the beach. Although it had been illegal to possess a football within the prison, they had uniforms and eventually managed to get hold of balls and other equipment.

Mandela tried to follow the games, but the guards built a wall to prevent him from watching play.

Playing football made the prisoners feel free. Football is still very much a Black person's game in South Africa, and many use it as a means of escape from the slums, just as in Brazil and other poor countries.

The story came full circle when South Africa hosted the World Cup.

See also: Africa United.

Winnie Mandela - BBC Film about the Life of Winnie Mandela

The BBC recently broadcast a film about Winnie Mandela. We rarely hear this sista's story.

When she was a young mother with two small children, the police broke down the door in the middle of the night. She shouted at them to "get out", but Nelson tried to calm her. He was obviously used to this intrusion, and even expected it.

Shortly after that, he left to go underground. When he was caught, he was imprisoned for 27 years. She tried to catch a glimpse of him from the crowd as he was taken to court in a police van, urging the children to wave to him.

She was occasionally allowed to make the long trip to Robben Island to visit him, but there were guards in the room with them the whole time.

When next the police came in the night, it was to arrest Winnie herself.

In prison, she was beaten and tortured, but never found guilty of any crime. Her barrister listed the health problems she had developed in prison, including diabetes, fainting spells, high blood pressure, bleeding gums, and blood in her urine.

After her release, the police came in the night once again. This time, Winnie was ready and waiting for them. As she sipped her cup of tea, she told them, "Take what you want and get out".

But she was not ready for what came next. Without speaking to her or even acknowledging her presence, they began removing her belongings and piling them into the back of a truck. Then they told her she had to come with them.

Arriving at some Bantustan which didn't even have a name, Winne and her daughter discovered that their fridge would not fit through the door of their new home, which a police officer had obligingly kicked in. He then advised them that there was no electricity, anyway.

This is what people went through just because they wanted to be treated as citizens and have basic civil rights in their own country. Just because they dared to speak out.

To read more about life under apartheid, see Come Back Africa and The End of the Dialogue.

Winnie Mandela - Amandla! Victory!
Winnie Mandela - Amandla! Victory!

Winnie in Exile

Winnie Mandela's Strengths and Weaknesses

The police officer announced to the locals who had gathered to see the new arival that she was now a "banned person" and no one was allowed to speak to her.

Having sent her daughter back to Soweto where she might have some kind of normal life, Winnie's loneliness must have been devastating. The film shows her drinking heavily to try to deal with the pain.

But she was resourceful. She would chat to women while queuing to draw water from the communal tap. Not allowed to meet with adults, she started organising the children.

She said that her treatment in prison had "taught her to hate". It seemingly also made her fearless. During a demonstration which was being fired on by the army, she walked through a line of soldiers to release several young people from the back of their van. And she routinely went into the shops which Black people were banned from entering.

I have read about this before. A white shopkeeper would hold up a dress in the doorway so her Black customer could decide whether or not to buy it. My owh parents expereinced similar things in 1920s and '30s U.S.A. But when Winnie arrived, she insistded that the customers be allowed into the shops to try on the clothes.

In the end, her dealings with young people were her undoing. Accusing people of collaborating with the apartheid regime, she was herself accused of instigating and participting in "necklacing" and other violent attacks. Her drinking, plus the years of abuse, may have affected her judgment. She later confessed to the TRC her involvement and complicity in the killing of a child.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he told her he no longer remembered what it meant to be married. Like millions of others, their marriage became a casualty of the apartheid regime. To read more about this, see Come Back, Africa.

They tried to isolate Winnie Mandela. They tried to silence her voice. But she never stopped fighting. And on the day Senator Ted Kennedy came to see her, the apartheid regime knew that it had failed.

To read more about Winnie's ordeal, see "Black Facts" in London Black History Walks.

Books about Nelson and Winnie Mandela - What Winne Mandela Experienced under Apartheid

Nelson Mandela's Release from Prison

Mandela Day

Mandela Day was launched on 18th July 2009, Mandela's 91st birthday. Here are some links.


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