The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
Long Walk to Freedom is the Autobiography of former South African President Nelson Mandela, one of the most profoundly influential people of the 20th century. Published back in 1994, Long Walk to Freedom tracks Mandela’s life from his early years right through to the experiences of spending 27 years in prison on Robben Island under the apartheid government. The final chapters of the book cover Mandela’s political ascension after being released from prison, and how, despite him tackling the country’s segregated society, the symptoms of apartheid South Africa remained. More recently, Long Walk to Freedom has been adapted into a film, with Idris Elba playing Nelson Mandela.
About Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid activist and political leader. After having spent 27 years in prison for encouraging anti-apartheid views, Mandela became South African president. He became the country’s first black head of state, and he won the Noble Peace Prize for his push for an anti-apartheid South Africa. Widely recognized as one of the most influential people of the 20th century and an icon of democracy and social justice, Mandela has received more than 250 honors. He is deeply respected within South Africa to this today, described as the “Father of the Nation”.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”– Nelson Mandela
A country childhood
Mandela starts his autobiography right at the beginning of his life. Born in 1918 in Mvezo, South Africa, to a village chief, Mandela was named Rolihlahla Mandela. This name, Rolihlahla, directly translated to “pulling the branches of trees”, which means “troublemaker”. Mandela would later acquire the clan name Madiba and the name he is most famous for, Nelson, was given to him by his first teacher.
Nelson’s Father was the son of a man who was part of the Ixhiba house, a lesser house of the Madiba clan of the Thembu tribe. Nelson’s Father was the acting equivalent of a president for Thembuland. He was an appointed, non-hereditary leader. However, his leadership came to an end when Nelson was young due to a display of insubordination by the local white magistrate. Nelson’s Father losing his job meant that Nelson grew up in severe poverty and that he and his mother had to move to a village called Qunu, near Umtata, when Nelson was an infant. This is where Nelson grew up. Within this era of South Africa, most fathers lived away from their families, often working in big cities like Johannesburg. Therefore, Nelson was mainly raised by his mother, who spent her time tending to maize and sorghum crops as her work.
Nelson spent his childhood engaging in stick fights with boys from other villages and going to church with his mother, who became a Methodist when Nelson was young. Nelson started his education at a relatively young age for this time in South Africa, with his Father’s amaMfengu friends (highly educated local people) recommending that Nelson be sent to school. Therefore, Nelson started school at the age of 7.
Upon Nelson’s Father dying when Nelson was 9, of lung disease, the local regent Jongintaba volunteered to become his guardian. Therefore, Nelson and his mother moved to Jongintaba and his wife’s royal residence in the provisional capital of Thembuland, Great Place. This area was a mission station of the Methodist church and was subsequently highly Westernized. This meant that his schooling was geared towards becoming either a clerk, interpreter, or policeman. Plus, it meant that Nelson became far more religious during this time.
After starting at the local church, Nelson became particularly interested in history. For example, he developed a strong passion for Black history and African heroes. During this time, he learned of the heroism of African people, such as Ngangelizwe, protecting their land against the British. For example, Chief Joyi described to Nelson how Blacks lived in relative peace until white men invaded and shattered their fellowship, explaining the exploitation that happened to South Africa by the hands of Jan Van Riesbeck.
Following on from this, Nelson attends the Clarkebury Boarding Institute in the district of Engcobo. This is the highest institution of learning for Africans, at the time, in Thembuland. Initially, Nelson struggles to adjust to a different environment. He is called a “country boy” by his fellow students, making him an outsider. However, he does make friends with a girl named Mathona, who becomes his first female friend. Making friends with a girl showed the difference between where he was brought up and this new environment, as women we treated as second-class citizens in his local community. Nelson’s identity as an African, not just a Thembu or Xhosa, continues to develop. His next formal education, attending Weslayan College (the largest school for Africans South of the Equator), exposed him to more identity-defining learning opportunities. While here, Nelson would hear from the Xhosa poet Krune Mqhayi. He gave an inspiring talk to the student on the clash between European and African cultures and introduced Nelson to anti-European rhetorics. This pushes Nelson to become passionate about African nationalism.
During this time, Nelson continues to excel academically while also developing his identity. At 21, Nelson studies at University College at Fort Hare in Alice municipality near Healdtown. This is the only residential center of higher learning for Black in South Africa at this time. Although Nelson holds very different views to many of the people teaching him, as most of them held colonialist attitudes, he remained friendly with his teachers. The subjects he chose to engage with were English, Anthropology, Politics, Native Admin, and Roman-Dutch Law. At this point, Nelson wants to become either a clerk or interpreter in Native Affairs. He also chooses to engage with a wide range of extracurricular activities, including getting into long-distance running, soccer, making speeches, dancing, and being part of the House Committee.
However, the regent of the local area had arranged for him and a woman called Justice to be wed. They both agreed that this is not what they wanted, and they decided to flee to Johannesburg. Fleeing Johannesburg also helped him to escape political issues that had arisen while he was at school. Having led the committee, during his second year, Mandela had supported a student boycott, which got him expelled. He and Justice sold two of the regent’s oxen to raise money for their journey, but this led to a trail of lies and deception being left behind them.
Mandela arrives in Johannesburg and acquires a job in a gold mine as a night watchman. According to him, the goldmine was a strong sign of white oppression. A lot of Africans slaving away daily in a huge capitalist enterprise that just profited the white owners.
Lies also became a feature of his life in Johannesburg. After arriving, the regent is calling for them to return home, but both Nelson and Justice refuse. During this time, they meet president-general Xuma of the ANC, and more lies emerge. The president-general is arrested for possession of a pistol, which was Nelson’s. Having also lied to his new landlord, Rev. J. Mathubo, Nelson is told he had to depart, and he subsequently moves in with a nearby Xhuma family. He also acquires a job as a trainee solicitor with a local lawyer named Walter Sisulu. By night, he continues to complete his degree from the University of SA that was put on hold when he fled.
One of Nelson’s fellow employees at the law firm, Gaur Radebe, is the first person to introduce Nelson to communism. Radebe is a prominent member within the communist party, and he, along with Nelson’s first white friend, Nat Bregman, try to convert a 23-year-old Mandela to communism. Mandela does attend many of their meetings during this time, but his boss warns him to avoid politics. However, Mandela does not listen to this advice. Instead, he decides to participate in the August 1943 Alexandra Bus Boycotts. This boycott was Mandela’s first experience of political activism. They aimed to challenge the increasing bus fares. Importantly, Mandela was not just a bystander marching; he was one of the most active members during this boycott. Mandela describes this moment as one of the most terrifying and empowering moments of his political life.
In Johannesburg, Mandela’s career continues to develop and, after a colleague who had his dream role resigned, he enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand to study for an LL.B. At this time, Nelson was the only black student on this course. On the back of this, he experienced a huge amount of racism. However, he also met many people with far more liberal attitudes. This period would end up being the first time Mandela struggled academically, though, with Mandela doing very poorly.
Birth of a freedom fighter
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”– Nelson Mandela
Throughout his time in Johannesburg, Mandela was heavily involved in the African National Congress (ANC). The organization aimed to help all Africans in South Africa to gain full citizenship. Mandela frequently went to the ANC’s meetings, and the ANC would eventually be integral to challenging apartheid South Africa. Additionally, the links that Mandela made through the communist party were hugely influential in his future fight against the apartheid.
During this time, Mandela is involved in discussions, as part of the ANC, about abuses of government, segregation, and indignities. The ANC creates a charter called African Claims. Mandela also meets a man named Anton Lembede. Anton is a Zulu from Natal. He gives the ANC a lecture against the black inferiority complex and for “Africanism”. Mandela saw this Afrikaner nationalism as a prototype for Black African nationalism, which Mandela saw as the only antidote to foreign rule and imperialism.
In the Easter of 1944, despite opposition from the head of ANC, Mandela and Dr. Lionel Majombozi form a Youth League of the ANC that would be activism-heavy. Mandela is made the executive to the president. As Mandela puts it, describing his feelings at that time: “African nationalism was our battle cry, and our creed was the creation of one nation out of many tribes, the overthrow of white supremacy, and the establishment of a truly democratic form of government”. On the back of this, Mandela argues strongly for rejecting any trusteeship from Whites, and this is accepted.
The following year is a monumental one in Mandela’s personal life. He meets Evelyn Mase, who is a nurse in training from Engcobo in the Transkei. Having met her, Mandela relays that he remembers describing Evelyn to others as a “quiet, pretty girl from the countryside”. The two of them fall in love very quickly. Within days of meeting each other, they were dating, and within months Mandela had already proposed marriage to Evelyn. Evelyn accepted his proposal, and they were wed in 1945.
This period was marred by increasingly repressive government acts, led by violence by the police. The African Mine Worker’s Union, in association with the communist party, led a miner’s strike in 1946. The police retaliated ruthlessly. Mandela was still in touch with the communist party at this time, and he queried more with the leader of the communist party about why they were being targeted and how communism might be to blame.
Later in 1946, Nelson and Evelyn Mandela moved to Orlando East. This was Mandela’s first home, and he remembers thinking about this home frequently while struggling in prison. It is also where his son, Madiba Thembekile, was born in 1946. A daughter follows in 1947, Makaziwe, but she sadly dies at nine months. Finally, a son named Makgatho is born in 1950.
In 1947, Mandela became increasingly skeptical of communism and critical of involving both communism and Indian participant in the ANC. Because of this, Mandela was actively involved in breaking up communist party meetings. However, later in 1947, as a newly elected Transvaal EC of the ANC, he united the ANC with the TIC and NIC (both Indian congresses) in fighting against the common enemy. Despite this, he continues to remain wary of the involvement of Indians and communists.
1948 was a challenging year politically for Mandela. The repressive National Party won the national elections in 1948. This party, led by Dr. Daniel Malan, advocated for apartheid being incorporated directly into law. He also believed that the English were no longer dominating the Afrikaners. These ideas and the subsequent increase in violence by the government led to the rise in ANC activism’s mobilization. This mobilization culminated in a shooting by police of 18 during a General Strike on May 1st, 1950.
By this time, Mandela had changed his mind on communism, now supporting its ideas and its involvement with ANC. He studied the writing of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. He struggled to understand some of it but believes that Marx’s call for revolutionary action would prove important in ANC’s struggles.
More demonstrations are encouraged by the government’s increasingly repressive acts, such as the Separate Representation of Voters Act and the Bantu Authorities Act. Mandela still fears the participation of Indians and Coloureds, but after a national vote confirms their involvement in the ANC, Mandela changes his mind.
By 1952, ANC membership rose consistently, and mass demonstrations took place to challenge the government to meet the group’s demands. At an individual level, Mandela is considering whether the ANC should follow Gandhi’s route and be nonviolent. Mandela is also arrested in 1952 for what was then called “statutory communism”. Mandela receives a suspended sentence for this.
The struggle is my life
“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”– Nelson Mandela
Over growing fears, Mandela decides to develop what he calls the “Mandela Plan”. This was his plan for how the ANC could still function after it would become illegal, which was expected.
He uses his spare time to continue working towards his LL.B., but fails multiple exams and instead pursues law without an LL.B. Subsequently, he was able to start his practice in 1952. His practice was high in demand as the only solely black practice in South Africa.
Upon hearing about the government’s plans to relocate Black people from Sophiatown under the Western Area Removal scheme, Mandela pushes against his Gandhi-inspired approach and publicly advocates violence and attempts to arrange for guns to be sent from China. These attempts were unsuccessful, and the ANC criticized Mandela’s actions and banned him from the ANC. There are also efforts to disbar Mandela. The ANC continues to push forward and draws up a list of its principals, called the Freedom Charter, which draws some inspiration from socialist ideas.
In December of 1956, Mandela is arrested for high treason, along with 141 others. He and the others are accused of conspiracy for committing violence and attempting to overthrow the government and replace it with a communist state. Mandela’s struggle is made worse by his marriage with Evelyn unraveling, despite having their 2nd daughter together, Makaziwe. In 1957, Evelyn decided to leave and take all the children. This was extremely hard for Mandela, who deeply loved his children.
The following year, Mandela meets his second wife, Nomzamo Madikzela. A social worker at a hospital, Mandela courts her before filing for divorce with Evelyn. Nelson and Nomzamo were wed in 1958. Their first daughter together, Zenani, is born later that year. A second daughter, Zindziswa, was born in December of 1960.
In regards to the trial, all charges of the indictment were withdrawn, but new charges were reinstated. Mandela was then re-arrested in March of 1960 after a state of emergency is called by the government after police killed 69 peaceful protesters at Sharpeville. This re-arrest led to Mandela’s legal defense withdrawing, and he had to defend himself. Mandela was eventually found not guilty a year later.
The black pimpernel
“When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”– Nelson Mandela
Upon winning his trial, Nelson Mandela immediately went underground. Because of how he evaded the police through elaborate disguises, Mandela was given the nickname of the Black Pimpernel. While underground, the ANC debates taking violent action and eventually decide to organize a military movement separate from ANC. This would be called Umkhonto We Sizwe, or The Spear of the Nation, and was led by Mandela.
Nelson Mandela explains in this book that he had to use an elaborate range of safe houses to avoid being arrested. His final stop, Liliesleaf Farm at Rivonia, is where he begins his sabotage campaign against the power and telephone lines, power plants, military installations, transport links, and government offices. He initially planned to spare human life but decides in 1961 to begin bombings of government targets.
During this time of living undercover, Mandela was able to visit a vast number of international leaders, including visits to Cairo, Tunis, and London. He also received military training in Addis Ababa. He managed to do all of this and still return to Johannesburg in secret.
Found in Rivonia in 1962, Mandela was charged with inciting a strike and illegally leaving the country; for this, Mandela was sentenced to five years imprisonment. This treatment of protestors was not supported by the rest of the world, with the UN starting sanctions against South Africa’s treatment of its citizens. The prison was extremely demeaning, also, but it became worse when Mandela was transferred to Robben Island off Cape Town coast due to the Sabotage Act of 1962.
After raids by the police in Rivonia, in July 1963, more incriminating materials were found and associated with Nelson Mandela. This evidence ultimately led to him being charged with sabotage, which was a capital offense. During his defense, he said, “During my lifetime 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 achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. Mandela was found guilty in this trial and, after deciding not to appeal, received a life sentence. However, international pressure on South Africa assisted in saving his life. For instance, a group of UN experts recommended that amnesty be given to every person that opposed apartheid, the charges against Mandela would have typically had a death penalty. Mandela would spend 27 years in prison.
Robben Island: the dark years
One of the three prisons that Mandela was incarcerated in across his 27-year stay was Robben Island. This chapter provides a detailed explanation of what it was like to live for the majority of this 27-year stay on Robben Island.
Mandela described how he had to spend most of his day crushing stones, which was excruciatingly tiring. He was frequently discriminated against on racial fronts, with prison guards giving him and other Black Africans less food, worse food, and more labor. Another way the prison discriminated against Black Africans is that they were forced to wear shorts throughout their stay. Others were allowed to wear full-length trousers if they preferred. This option was not offered to Mandela.
Restrictions were also placed on the number of visitors he was allowed and the letters he received. Outside of the prison, during his time incarcerated, his picture or words were banned in public.
During his time in prison, Mandela still used this time to organize people politically despite these dark years. Specifically, arguing against the cruelty of warders. Additionally, he continued to lead from the front. In 1966, he managed to organize a hunger strike by leaving notes in empty matchboxes and under stacks of dirty dishes. This strike aimed to help improve the living conditions on Robben Island. Ultimately, the guards took part in the strike. The prison authorities understood the strike was a lot for the prison. Therefore they accepted the requests of the prisoners.
While still in prison, the environment outside grew further in its animosity. The police state became increasingly brutal. There were liberation movements and ANC fighting in Zimbabwe. Inside, Mandela was able to develop a group called the ANC High Organ. These were people who were on Robber Island, were in support of ANC’s causes.
Robben Island: beginning to hope
Mandela’s political mobilization while living on Robben Island was not in vain. Improvements were seen in the prison after his strikes and lobbying. Mandela was able to get the prison to agree to start holding Christian services within an on-site Church. He was also allowed to start a garden and play tennis with other inmates.
Despite these improvements, Mandela was still seen as a threat and was treated accordingly. Plots grew to assassinate him, but there were still positives that Mandela could see. One of the harshest wardens, Colonel Piet Badenhorst, showed a change of mind during Mandela’s time. He shifted from hugely racist behaviors for many years, to wishing Mandela and his people good luck upon Badenhorst leaving his job. This encouraged Mandela that good can be instilled in anybody.
Mandela also used his time in Robben Island prison as an opportunity to educate others. He set up a so-called university within the prison, with a syllabus organized by senior ANC prisoners. This education included helping prisoners learn about ANC. Mandela also writes some of his memoirs, which he smuggled out of prison. Supposedly, many parts of those memoirs make up this autobiography.
At one point during his sentence, there were rumors that somebody could help Mandela escape prison. Upon considering the option for a while, Mandela decided not to take this option. This was a wise decision as the escape plan was ultimately a setup.
In 1980, a Free Mandela campaign was created, and it grew in popularity very rapidly.
Talking with the enemy
From 1984 onwards, Winnie, Mandela’s second wife, was allowed to visit Nelson.
On the outside, continued violence was used by the MK. In 1983, a car bomb attack killed 19, including civilians. This moment further escalated the violence on both sides. Based on these escalations, the government offered Nelson Mandela freedom in 1985 as long as he was willing to renounce violence. Mandela refuses this offer.
Despite refusing the offer, Mandela remains active in his political pursuits. He puts feelers out for alternative negotiations. All the while, a State of Emergency was declared in 1986. In the same year, Mandela meets with Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee. These negotiations continue to develop, with a Working Group initiated in 1988 between Mandela and several high officials. Despite this, Mandela still refuses to renounce the ANC’s armed struggle. However, the ANC do distance themselves from the communist party and reject their previous idea of a majority rule.
After many years of living in Robben Island, Mandela also received a new prison home in 1988. Far nicer than his previous prison ‘homes’, Victor Verster was a lovely cottage complete with a cook. During this time, he is allowed similar freedoms to a free man. He is allowed to have visits from political groups like the United Democratic Front and the Mass Democratic Movement.
By 1989, many of the political prisoners, who were arrested at the same time as Mandela, were being released. Additionally, the new president of South Africa, De Klerk, was seeking to dismantle apartheid. Nelson Mandela met with De Klerk soon after becoming president, and Nelson Mandela is finally freed after 27 years of being imprisoned, on February 11th, 1990.
After Mandela’s release, there was a huge parade and mobs of supporters in Cape Town. This was confusing for Mandela, who was so used to people being opposed to him and his ideas. Soon after this release, he met with the ANC. However, this was not the end of Mandela’s story. There was still a rising opposition to the ANC by many of the people with power in South Africa, including the Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, head of the Inkatha Freedom Party, and the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini. The month after Mandela met with ANC, this feeling turned into action, with fighting breaking out and the police attacking ANC demonstrators.
With the violence worsening, ANC eventually agreed to suspend the armed struggle in August of 1990. Despite this, the ANC members continued to be attacked, including a savage attack by the IFP, Zulu chief Mangosuthu Bethelezi’s party. Following this, Mandela met with Bethelezi to try and find a way to make peace, but this was no successful.
Through all of this, Mandela continued to try and have a positive impact. For example, he frequently traveled back to Robben Island to persuade MK prisoners to accept amnesty. However, his second marriage breaks down over the coming years. This was after Winnie had been convicted, in February 1991, of kidnapping.
In 1992, covert attacks continued against members of the ANC. This was worsened by further attacks from the IFP and threats against ANC by the government. After this, coupled with the General Strike in August 1992, a Record of Understanding is finally signed between Nelson Mandela and the South African government, run by De Klerk.
This Record of Understanding would be the start of Mandela’s movement towards becoming president. In December, the ANC executives chose to have a series of secret bilateral talks with the government. Firstly, it was decided that every party that got above 5% in the general election should have proportional representation in the cabinet that signified that the ANC would need to work together with the national party, which activated controversy within the ANC.
Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, on the back of his lifelong efforts to fight for Black African rights. Then, he begins an election campaign that ultimately results in the ANC, the party he is running for, winning 62.6% of the vote. De Klerk made a gracious concession speech in support of Mandela and Mandela forms his new government. This government adopted socialist ideas, with an emphasis on being a democratic, nonracial government.
Mandela finished the book by explaining that the Long Walk to Freedom for Black people is not yet finished. He regrets not having been able to serve his views, mother, and his children properly. However, his hunger for making change remained.
New to StoryShots? Get the free audiobook and animated versions of this summary in our free top-ranking app. It’s been featured by Apple, The UN and The Guardian.
What did you learn from the book summary of Long Road to Freedom? What was your favorite takeaway? Comment below or tweet to us @storyshots.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
Blackout by Candace Owens
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson