Long walk to freedom
Nelson Rolihlahla Dalibunga “Madiba” Mandela, the great freedom fighter of the 20th century, has left us at age 95, claimed, as Barack Obama put it, by the ages. Nelson is his Christian name; Rolihlahla is the name, meaning “troublemaker”, given to him by his father at birth; Dalibunga is the name bestowed on him when he was circumcised into manhood at 16; Madiba is his clan name, which he inherited; and Mandela he seems to have got from his grandfather.
He was born in the village of Mvezo but grew up in the village of Qunu, where he would be buried. He belonged to the Thembu tribe, which became part of the Xhosa nation. In the Thembu tradition, he was of royal blood.
He lived his adult life fighting against the evil racist political system of apartheid, and forgiving and reconciling with the minority whites who shackled, debased, and brutalised black South Africa.
He spent close to 27 years in jail (most of them at Robben Island)—a life imprisonment sentence cut short in 1990 by white South African president Frederik Willem de Klerk with whom he would share the Noble Prize for Peace in 1993.
He believed in racially inclusive living and in a racially inclusive democracy, and he not only politically unified whites and blacks in South Africa but also rival black parties (as a prelude to a one-person-one-vote state of affairs).
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he recounts his life from birth to the presidency of South Africa, focusing on the struggle to end apartheid, his trial and imprisonment, his release, the negotiations with warring black parties, and the ushering in of political freedom and fair play for all. It is an elegant, honest, and earnest narrative, and I went back to it for this column, which I write in homage to him.
Below, I will be reproducing parts of his text, all of which I regard as indicative and some seminal.
In court for his ‘rebellion’ against apartheid:
“Many years ago, when I was a boy brought up in my village… I listened to the elders of the tribe telling stories about the good old days before the arrival of the white man. Then our people lived peacefully, under the democratic rule of their kings and [those closest in rank to the latter], and moved freely and confidently up and down the country without let or hindrance.
“The country was our own, in name and right …. We set up and operated our own government, we controlled our own arms and we organised our trade and commerce ….
“The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the whole tribe and there was no individual ownership whatsoever. There were no classes, no rich or poor and no exploitation of man by man. All men were free and equal and this was the foundation of government ….
“The council was so completely democratic that all members of the tribe could participate in its deliberations. Chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, all took part and endeavoured to influence its decisions.” (Pages 329-30)
“…The whole life of any thinking African in this country drives him continuously to a conflict between his conscience on the one hand and the law on the other.” (330)
“…The law as it is written and designed by the nationalist government is a law which, in our views, is immoral, unjust, and intolerable.” (Page 330)
“I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience. Can it be any wonder …that such conditions make a man an outlaw of society? Can it be wondered that such a man, having been outlawed by the government, should be prepared to lead the life of an outlaw, as I have led for some months, according to the evidence before this court?” (Page 331)
On his experience of solitary confinement:
“For the next few weeks, I was completely and utterly isolated. I did not see the face or hear the voice of another prisoner. I was locked up for 23 hours a day, with 30 minutes of exercise in the morning and then again in the afternoon.
“I had never been in isolation before, and every hour seemed like a year …. There was no natural light in my cell …. I had nothing to read, nothing to write on or with, no one to talk to.
“The mind begins to turn in on itself, and one desperately wants something outside of oneself on which to fix one’s attention …. After a time in solitary, I relished the company even of the insects in my cell, and found myself on the verge of initiating conversations with a cockroach.” (Page 334)
On the question of violence:
“We of the ANC have always stood for a non-racial democracy, and we shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart than they already were. But the hard facts were that 50 years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights.” (Page 364)
In court, and on disparities between white and black life:
“The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion.’ (Page 367)
“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 to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” (Page 368)
And, finally, on his inauguration as president:
“Today, all of us do, by our presence here … confer glory and hope to newborn liberty. Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud. We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender, and other discrimination. Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another ….. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. Let freedom reign.”
Yes, great Rolihlahla, let it reign. Let it reign.