The story of Mandela's struggle for freedom and justice

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Zafar Bangash

Rabi' al-Awwal 27, 1418 1997-08-01

Book Review

by Zafar Bangash (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 11, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1418)

LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (Abridged Edition) By Nelson Mandela. Abridged by Coco Cachalia and Marc Suttner. Nolwazi Educational Publishers (Pty) Ltd, Braamfontein, Gauteng, South Africa. 1996. pp.122. Pbk: R19.95 (US$4.50).

The world's best known and longest-serving political prisoner's 27-year ordeal finally came to an end when shortly before 4 pm on February 11, 1990, Nelson R Mandela, accompanied by his wife Winnie, walked out of the Victor Verster prison in Cape Town. It may have been a few short steps to the prison gate, but it was a giant leap for Mandela and indeed the whole of South Africa.

Outside the prison gates, thousands of people welcomed their hero as Mandela raised his fist triumphantly. From that moment onwards, the history of South Africa moved fast and changed radically as narrated by Mandela himself in this straight forward account titled Long Walk to Freedom.

The apartheid regime's decision to release Mandela was not predicated on compassion; his incarceration on June 11, 1964 for life was itself a great travesty of justice. Mandela and his fellow strugglers wanted political rights for all South Africans regardless of race or colour. This was not acceptable to the white minority who wanted the vast resources of the country only for themselves.

The overwhelming majority of South Africans - the blacks - were denied their most basic rights once the Nationalist Party led by Dr Daniel Malan imposed apartheid upon coming to power in 1948. Apartheid actually means 'separate development' but there was no development for the blacks; only separation from the whites and denial of the most basic rights, especially human dignity. The word apartheid and South Africa became synonymous for the next 40 years.

In the Pretoria courthouse where the trial, that came be known as the Rivonia Trial, was held from October 1963 onwards, Mandela did not deny the charges. These were very serious indeed - planning sabotage and conspiracy to wage guerrilla warfare. If convicted, he could face the death penalty. Mandela was also not alone. Others charged with him included such African National Congress (ANC) stalwarts as Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangani, Bob Hepple, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Dennis Goldberg, Rusty Bernstein and Jimmy Kantor.

It was Mandela, however, who spoke first when the prosecution ended its case on February 29, 1964. He told justice Quartus de Wet that their struggle was to get rights for all South Africans and to end the unjust system of apartheid which had 'robbed the African people of their dignity.' He then turned to the judge and putting aside his prepared text, spoke thus:

'During my life-time, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die' (p.62). This is perhaps the most dramatic statement in the entire book.

With the exception of Bernstein, all others were found guilty of various charges and sentenced to life imprisonment. No stranger to prison, it started another period in the life of Mandela. In fact, at the time of the Rivonia Trial, he was already serving a five-year sentence at the notorious Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town.

Mandela describes in detail the travails encountered at Robben Island and the seemingly small but significant battles they fought - and won - against their tormentors to preserve their dignity. Throughout the book, he narrates events in a non-chalant, matter-of-fact style.

He writes that the first few years at the Island prison were very difficult. Life was harsh; the food terrible. They were kept in solitary confinement, denied all news of the outside world and subjected to hard labour, first in the prison courtyard breaking stones, and later quarrying lime stone in the mines.

When first taken to the quarry, the commanding officer, colonel Wessels, told them that they would be there for about six months. 'He was a bit off with his timing: we remained at the quarry for the next 13 years' (p.70), says Mandela.

He found the prolonged separation from his second wife Winnie and their children most difficult to bear (His first wife Evelyn Mase, a cousin of Sisulu's, left him in 1953 when he refused to give up politics. Like Evelyn, Mandela met Winnie also through Sisulu. He had two daughters from her. Since his release, his marriage to Winnie has also fallen apart, another tragic part of his life).

Prisoners' families wer allowed visits every six months but Winnie was refused permission for two years at a stretch. This, Mandela writes, he found very painful. Even when she was allowed to visit, they could talk only through a glass partition and the meeting lasted a mere 30 minutes.

Mandela starts his account from early childhood. In that sense, the book is chronologically arranged. Born Rolihlahla, the name given by his father which meant one pulling the branch of a tree, or 'trouble-maker' for short. He lived up to this reputation but as a rebel with a cause.

He acquired the name Nelson through his teacher when he enrolled in the tin-roofed single-room school in Qunu. His parents had moved there after his father was stripped of all possessions - land, cattle chieftainship - in a dispute with another person and his refusal to appear before a magistrate. His father felt that the magistrate had no jurisdiction, insisting that it was a tribal matter.

While his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa had no formal education, he was chief and member of the Thembu royal family. He had four wives (No, he was not a Muslim!) from whom he had 13 children. Mandela's mother Nosekeni Fanny was the third wife who had four children, three daughters and a son. Mandela was the youngest of four boys. His mother had become a Christian and young Rolihlahla was baptised in a Methodist church.

It was at the urging of a neighbour that Mandela was enrolled in school. He recalls his first day there with pride. His father died when Mandela was only nine but his education continued through the help of kind neighbours and friends.

One of these, he says, was Jongintaba Dalindyebo, paramount chief of the Thembu tribe. Jogintaba had been nominated chief or Regent at the urging of Mandela's father. The Regent returned the favour when Mandela's father died. He took the young boy under his care. Together with his son Justice, Mandela was enrolled in a boarding school. It was there that he met Oliver Tambo, later to become president of the ANC during Mandela's long imprisonment. The two boys fled the Regent's care when he wanted them married to the village priest's daughters. They ended up in Johannesburg where they met Sisulu.

It was Sisulu who got him a job as an articled clerk in the law firm of Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman. It was also there that he met others who were either members of the ANC or the communist party. But it was largely through Sisulu that Mandela got involved in ANC work, ending up being assigned important responsibilities within the organisation.

If the years 1946 to 1961 were the formative years of his political career in which he realised the barbarity of the apartheid system, the years from 1961 onwards were to take him on a new course altogether. It was soon after his acquittal on treason charges and some months after the Sharpeville massacre (March 20, 1960) that he urged the ANC to take up armed struggle.

At first, Mandela faced opposition from some members of the ANC working committee but he was able to persuade them after a while. It was also at this stage that he went underground. He had already served a number of rounds in prison for various offences including travelling abroad without proper documents and being a member of an illegal organisation. He had visited various African countries to rally support for the struggle against apartheid.

The armed struggle involved training Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation - the ANC army) in neighbouring countries. Mandela was appointed its first chief. On June 26, 1961, he even sent a letter to the press explaining why he had gone underground (p.46). He invited them to join him in the struggle that lay ahead.

Going underground meant staying out of sight during the day, emerging at night and changing places frequently. The ANC had bought Liliesleaf Farm in Rovinia as a hideout. It was from there that the six-page document titled 'Operation Mayibuye' was captured on a tip off from a government infiltrator into the ANC army. It was a plan for guerrilla warfare and mass armed uprising against the government if sabotage did not work.

The discovery of 'Operation Mayibuye' landed the ANC leadership in prison and led the apartheid regime to launch massive strikes against neighbouring countries. The period 1964 to 1988 at Robben Island is discussed at length in the book. From then onwards, things began to change dramatically when Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor prison.

It was Mandela who repeatedly called for negotiations with the government about which some of his comrades expressed reservations. They feared that this would be interpreted as a sign of weakness but Mandela says that he knew where to draw the line. Events seemed to have vindicated his stance.

A year after his release, the ANC started 'talks about talks' with the government to arrive at a settlement. During this time, a number of ANC supporters were gunned down. While the talks started in March 1991, it was not until December 1991 that serious talks about the future of the country were initiated.

Mandela has much praise for F W de Klerk, the man who took the decision to release him and to agree to dismantle apartheid. After months of intense negotiations, a deal about a government of national unity was announced in February 1993. By November, an agreement was also reached about an interim constitution.

When elections were held on April 27, 1994, the ANC emerged with 62.6 percent of the vote gaining 252 seats in a 400-member parliament. It also captured seven of the nine provinces, the other two going to the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Nationalist Party respectively. Mandela was sworn in as president on May 10, 1994.

It is a moving account of one of the great strugglers for justice and freedom this century. There are, however, major gaps in the book. For instance, Mandela does not tell us what led to the breakdown of his marriage with Winnie whom he has described in such glowing terms in the book. Also, he omits any mention of the stranglehold the white minority still has on the economy.

Since Mandela's election as president, the ANC has lost considerable support in the country because the government has not been able to deliver on many promises. There is disillusionment among the black youths at the lack of tangible progress.

Without economic freedom, one could ask whether Mandela is truly free, as the book's title suggests. This is not to belittle the immense sacrifices, his own and those of his family, that were made. But post-apartheid South Africa is beginning to look much like the one it replaced, with a few non-white faces in the forefront.

Did Mandela really walk to freedom or is it another of those false dawns that have occurred in so many 'third world' countries over the last 50 years? And what does the future hold once Mandela retires from active politics in 1999 when he would be 80? This book does not address these issues.

Notwithstanding this, it is an exciting account of the life-struggle of an exceptionally decent and courageous individual who made immense sacrifices for his people. He is truly a people's man, one moreover with a very large and forgiving heart. He has refused to put his tormentors on trial, placing the country's interests above his personal hurt.

One may disagree with his approach but one could hardly question his decency or self-sacrifice.

Muslimedia: August 1-15, 1997

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