Even if you’re not a soccer fan, you’re probably aware that the World Cup is already well underway in South Africa. If you watched ESPN any time in the last few months, you likely saw a commercial for this event showing African prisoners suiting up for a game in a prison courtyard on an island far away. You likely even saw the profile of a man who was watching them with admiration… and probably wondered, “What????”
The place? Robben Island. The time? Somewhere between 1964 and 1983. The man? Nelson Mandela, symbol of the resistance to apartheid and future leader of South Africa.
I had the opportunity to visit Robben Island in 2003 and saw the cell where Mandela spent decades of his life, visited the courtyard where he did hard labor, and heard the stories of what life was like for freedom fighters confined there. I bought Mandela’s autobiography before leaving the island, chiding myself for being so ignorant about a crucial part of our modern world history and promising that I would read it as soon as possible.
Which I finally did. In 2010. (Things were kind of busy from 2003 until now, y’all.) I’m glad I did.
From the very first pages, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom transports you to the South Africa of yesterday as you follow his journey from a young Xhosa boy in the Transkei to the leader of a post-apartheid nation. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about reading this book is knowing that the majority of it was written while Mandela was still in prison and the battle for freedom was not yet won. In his conversational prose, Mandela tells the story of his life, his political awakening within the ANC, his years as a freedom fighter, the decades spent in prison, and the eventual birth of true equality and democracy for all races in South Africa. Even the bleakest chapters were not without humor and inspiration, as Mr. Mandela filtered all events and trials through the optimistic lens of hope.
Whether or not you agree with Mr. Mandela’s political leanings or associations (in one passage, he speaks of meeting with a group of African leaders, among them Robert Mugabe, who uses unspeakable violence to further his personal causes in Zimbabwe to this very day), this book is invaluable in understanding the conflict that took place not so long ago in South Africa, the plight of many people post-colonial period on the African continent, and the true worth of freedom. At the conclusion of the trial that most certainly could have led to a death sentence (but resulted instead in a life sentence), Mr. Mandela, who was by trade a lawyer, gave his own defense, simply stating that there are some things worth dying for in this world. Such bravery and virtue is admirable, and you’ll find yourself cheering as Mandela is finally released and a new era begins in South Africa.
I’m recommending this version, although there is a shorter abridged version. Having never read the latter, I have to tell you that I can’t imagine what they left out because all of the information in the original seemed important. While the names and dates are somewhat tedious at points, it all paints an intricate portrait of life at the time. The reading goes very quickly, so don’t let the size of the book deter you from jumping in.
How about you? Is there a book you’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to yet?