By Ochuko Tonukari
One of the men I respect most in my short sojourn on planet earth just celebrated his 93rd birthday and I feel I should try to find out more about what was responsible for his greatness. This was what motivated me recently to read his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”. Indeed, it was one book like no other which brought a watershed into my life. It was such that I spent the whole of last weekend reading ‘Long Walk to freedom’. For two days I couldn’t leave the world Mandiba had locked me in. As I finished the autobiography and took a walk outside, I stopped seeing people as Ibos, Itsekiris, Hausas, Urhobos or Yorubas. All I saw were one people who could bury the hatchets of ethnicity and forge a country of love, peace and tranquillity.
The language of the book is amazingly journalistic and splendid; the storyline is astonishingly exciting and free of malapropisms as well as tautologies. It was also devoid of sentimentality and exaggerated pathos. If there is anything that I wished to be more detailed it is the interlude between his childhood and adolescence. This period is depicted in a rather remote way with a somewhat lack of clarification or indication. I discovered that may have happened as a result of the circumstances under which the book was written: in prison.
Prior to reading the book I saw Mandela as a superhuman with no weakness at all. But in the book he portrayed himself in true colours; he accepted his mistakes and trumpeted his successes. He is after all human. I have often thought that life does not mean anything if one cannot stand up for what one believes. I have always supported the ideologies of Marcus Garvey/ Malcolm X forms of freedom fighting. I habitually thought that peaceful protests were for the weak in heart. Why should I like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., watch while the adversary unleashes violence on my people? Mandela took me through the mainstream of peaceful civil protest and I have come to understand that this kind of protest is even more difficult than the use of force. ‘Long walk To Freedom’ is a must-read for any person who still has humanity in his being.
In consideration of the cruelty and brutality that prevailed in South Africa for decades, one can say that the existing harmony among all different South African people is a significant achievement that needs to be highlighted. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography sheds light on this achievement and it is a clarion call for other nations around the world to pursue their own real freedom. The struggle of the African National Congress Party, to which Mandela belonged, is also a landmark in the history of the fight for freedom of all people irrespective of their backgrounds. Mandela shows the reader that freedom is a collective need.
“Long Walk to Freedom” taught me that inside each of us there is a hidden “Mandela” waiting for the right moment or the right circumstances to emerge. This is why, in view of the South African experience, I consider this book as a wake up call, not just for me, but for every human being pursuing and fighting for his freedom. Mandela was not born into a wealthy family, nor was he blessed with any remarkable privileges. Rather, he worked hard every passing day of his life to pursue his goals and to become the person he became. He was born in 1918 in a small village in the region of Transkei. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was made a chief of the town of Mvezo. Unfortunately, Mandela’s father died when he was still very young and due to his mother’s desire to give him a better future, he had to leave his town to live in a completely different environment. That experience helped in building up his personality and in structuring his value system.
Mandela was very wild when he was young. At one time he ran away from home with his friend in search of a job in the coal mines in Johannesburg because he didn’t want to marry the girl they had chosen for him. And being able to afford his studies, Mandela obtained his B.A from the University of South Africa. Later he began a law firm called Mandela & Tambo in Johannesburg where he provided free or low-cost legal services to many blacks who would otherwise have been without representation.
Mandela grew up in an environment where whites are seen as better people, and this mindset sank into the minds of everyone to the extent that they had forgotten to think of freedom, since they thought they were free. However, with the passage of time, Mandela came to understand the evil of apartheid practiced against his African people. It all began with the Bantu Education Act that was based on racial segregation, and culminated in social, judicial and political discrimination. It was at this time that he strongly decided to defend and fight for the freedom of South African people with his last pint of blood.
Mandela didn’t “choose” to be a political activist, rather he found himself unexpectedly as an activist in the ANC Party; a party whose members are of all colors and races, due to the Party’s ideology in political equality as the only panacea for an end to racial segregation. During this time, he was a prominent member of ANC Party. He contributed immensely in establishing the Youth Wing and organized a number of strikes and participated in the Defiance Campaign. He combined voluntary work alongside his work as a lawyer. However, the nature of his struggle made him lived as a fugitive who never gave up, but who eventually got arrested and underwent many trials and thus became a national hero.
In a press release he issued in 1961 he stated: “I have made my choice, I will not leave South Africa, nor will I give up… I will continue to fight for freedom until the end of my days”.
Mandela and his colleagues were subjected to many trials which lasted for several years during which the Government presented hundreds of evidences and many witnesses. But each time it would meet with failure or the prisoners would be convicted for minor charges due to lack of evidence. One can say that Mandela and his colleagues had always managed to reverse the trial thus putting the government instead behind the bars. But that was not to be in the case of Rivonia’s ill-fated trial where Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for co-founding MK’s armed movement and planning for a guerilla war against the Regime.
MK is the military wing of the ANC. Mandela co-founded this movement due to his burning need of switching from the non-armed to the armed mass struggle. He perceived that it was the only logical way to fight for freedom. MK started to organize sabotage struggles against the military and government targets with the least civil casualties.
When MK was about to be established, Mandela toured the African Continent seeking financial support for the activities of MK. Meanwhile he had earlier received training in Addis Ababa, but as soon as he came back from his tour he was arrested before he could even settle down to teach his comrades. Mandela was charged twice and was convicted both times. In the Rivonia Trial, he was sentenced to life imprisonment where he and other convicts were transferred to Robben Island. It was while here that Mandela became the world’s most famous political prisoner. Even in Robben Island, apartheid was in practiced. Thus, Mandela and his colleagues decided to begin the fight against racism, this time, inside the prison. After sometimes they succeeded in making the prison look as if the prisoners were heading the prison and not the other way round.
Before long, people were referring to Robben Island Prison as “University.” This is because it soon became a school where different political activists studied the political history of different parties and movements in South Africa, and where all their earlier misconceptions were subject to a radical change. It was a grand opportunity for Nelson Mandela to correct what the prisoners thought of the ANC as being controlled by the Communist Party.
While in prison, things began to happen sporadically, radically. The police began to arrest top ANC leaders and those who were not arrested managed to flee from the country. Meanwhile, MK increased the pace of sabotage activities and the toll of armed struggle victims was steadily increasing. In the 70s the desire to rebel began to be felt by the angry revolutionary young generation, which coincided with the emergence of the Liberation Movements across the Continent in general.
In his latest days in jail, Mandela strongly believed that the final solution for the crisis in South Africa would be a political non-militant one. Hence, he took the initiative and a series of tentative meetings took place, laying the foundation for further contact and future negotiations with the government. It was during this time that F.W De Klerk became the promising president of the country.
It is a truism that every real fighter will suffer and that suffering will become part and parcel of his walk and struggle. So was Mandela, during his “long walk to freedom.” He suffered from detention, trials, segregation laws, the separation from his family and his deprivation from living a free life.
In his book, Mandela explained in detail the inner conflict that he had to live with for so many long years. Every waking hour of his life he wondered and questioned whether he had made the right decision of choosing to fulfill his duty towards his people over fulfilling his obligations towards his family. He was not able to show up at his daughter’s wedding nor was he present when his mother or his two children died. His children grew up away from him, and when he ultimately came back to them, he was already the father of the whole nation.
Mandela’s struggle for freedom made him a fugitive and a vagabond. He lived as a monk even though he was a true lover of life and nature. While in prison, he wrote a speech titled: “I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom”. Mandela spent 27 years in a prison where one is supposed to lose his identity. He didn’t, rather he managed to relate to everyone with hope and self dignity and refused to yield to cruelty or fear. Even in moments when his trust in his humanity was shaken he didn’t give in to despair.
Mandela’s statement “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear but the triumph over it” evokes a greatness that he shared with all great people of the 20th century. The likes of Che Guevara who fought for the social justice of South American People; Gandhi who struggled for the liberation of India in the 1920s; Martin Luther King and many other anonymous heroes who fought for the freedom of their people.
Indeed, a “Long Walk to Freedom” will help revive the hope inside each and everyone who reads it. It is one of the few books that fuel our revolutionary sense of struggle and resistance. It teaches the reader that there is nothing “impossible” and that consistency, hard work and hope are the key elements of success. The book taught me that human beings, despite their differences in terms of race, political affiliations, religious ideologies or culture, are capable of putting their hands together to work in achieving one goal. The book taught me that the greatest thing in life is love, and that the hatred that some societies develop towards other groups can be transformed into love and harmony “for love comes more naturally than its opposite”. I also learned that the walk of struggle is a precarious path with no real guaranties whatsoever. The book gave me the hope that all the exerted efforts during our daily struggles are never in vain.
Mandela’s book is highly significant, in every page and every line there is a lesson to be learned. And as Mandela says: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb” signifies that the struggle for freedom is an endless one. This book of former president Nelson Mandela motivated me to remain a fighter during my entire life. It was as well a source of hope and knowledge about a remarkable experience in the human history; the experience of South Africa in its struggle for freedom. Indeed, after reading the book, the man in me cried out for heroic expression.