The Liberator

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

Little, Brown, 558 pp., $24.95
Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela; drawing by David Levine


This may seem a strange time for the autobiography of Nelson Mandela to appear. He has only recently been elected president of South Africa; presumably, his days will continue to be packed with newsworthy if not historic events for the next few years at least. Mandela’s life, however, has already been so full, so improbably long and mythologically complete, that his current employment can almost be read as a postscript. Certainly Long Walk to Freedom does not give the impression of being a premature work. It is, in fact, timely in that some of its main themes—the complex alliance between South African Communists and African nationalists, the generational conflicts within the democracy movement, the tension between rural traditionalists and Westernized city folk—prefigure major political issues in the new South Africa. More than that, the book answers, not always intentionally, some fundamental questions about the extraordinary Mosaic figure who has become South Africa’s first democratically chosen leader.

He was born in 1918 in the Transkei, a beautiful, deeply impoverished, green-hilled region on the Indian Ocean coast which is the home of the Xhosa-speaking people. Mandela’s father, a local chief, was a member of the royal house of the Thembu tribe, whose kings he served as a counselor. Although illiterate, he was a celebrated public speaker: his son, Rolihlahla, who only got the name Nelson from a teacher on his first day at school (Rolihlahla is Xhosa, we are told, for “trouble-maker”), so admired his father, who had a tuft of white hair above his forehead, that he used to rub ashes into his own hair to get the same effect.

His father was stripped of his chieftainship, however, after challenging the authority of a local white magistrate, and he died when Nelson was nine. Mandela was taken into the household of the acting Thembu regent, a relatively grand, cosmopolitan place at a Methodist mission station where people wore Western clothes and the young Mandela was free to watch the royal court conduct its business in long, colorful, public meetings whose style of consensual decision-making he still admires. The regent saw in Mandela a future royal counselor and made sure he went to school. At the same time, Mandela had a traditional rural Xhosa boyhood: hunting birds with slingshots, working as a shepherd, and being ritually circumcised in public at the age of sixteen. (It was, he writes, “a sacred time; I felt happy and fulfilled taking part in my people’s customs….”)

The story of Mandela’s youth serves various purposes. As the country boy progresses from the outermost precincts of what were then called “the reserves” through a series of mission schools and colleges, each more sophisticated than the last, on to the University College of Fort Hare (the only residential university for blacks in South Africa at the time), and finally, in early 1941, to the modern city of Johannesburg, his story reveals…

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