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Southern Africa Report Archive

David Cooke provides the other of two reviews of Nelson Mandela's autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom".

vol 11 no 2

Review: Reviewing Mandela's autobiography: II - David Cooke: **** (four stars)
David Cooke

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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 2, January 1996
Page 31

II. DAVID COOKE: **** (four stars)


A member of the SAR editorial working group, David Cooke teaches English at York University's Glendon College.

Long Walk to Freedom, The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Little Brown & Co., Boston, New York, Toronto, London, 1994. 558 pages.

This century has had its share of liberation movements, some of whose leaders have achieved legendary stature. Tracing the story of these movements is always interesting, but it is especially inviting to see it through the eyes of one who was at the head of the struggle.

In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela gives an engrossing account of becoming a freedom fighter, organizing the strikes and stay-aways, launching the armed struggle, then later suspending it. He tells about relations with the Communist Party, the Indian community and other members of the movement, about conflicts within the movement, about the Treason Trial and Rivonia, and the shadowy time spent underground. He describes survival in prison for 27 years, the negotiations for his own release and for that of other political prisoners, and the curious story of re-entering society, at first clandestinely, then in a blaze of publicity. Overall, it is a story of tension, courage and passion.

In the process Mandela captures the painful drama of critical decisions. He gives his insider's view of the practical politics of the daily struggle, details some of the immense personal costs suffered, and unwittingly reveals a number of unresolved tensions and conflicts in his own outlook.

One intriguing question is how a person of relatively favoured estate and status abandoned the comfort and security of his courtly early life for the dangerous rigours of a freedom fighter. Mandela approaches this question more by the sweep of his story than by his commentary, though at the end of the book he looks back to observe, "I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and sisters were not free. . . . That is when I joined the ANC. . . . It was this desire for the freedom of my people to live their lives with dignity and self-respect that animated my life." In powerful vignettes, he details his development. In one, he describes how he came to reject the way "paternalistic British colonialism" was creating a black elite. In another, he admits he hesitated to include the Indian community in the growing battle against apartheid. The turning point for him was the Indian community's campaign of passive resistance against the Ghetto Act, which severely restricted rights to movement, trade and ownership. He describes how numbers of the community engaged in the campaign "suspended their studies . . . and went to prison," including the school-age Ahmed Kathrada, who eventually spent many years locked up with Mandela. Mandela records the breakthrough in his thinking:
I often visited the home of Amina Pahad for lunch, and then suddenly, this charming woman put aside her apron and went to jail for her beliefs. If I had once questioned the willingness of the Indian community to protest against oppression, I no longer could.

This is also a story of leadership, Mandela's and others'. Mandela is constantly aware of the fact and repeatedly comments on the role of the leaders in the movement. In a telling incident, he displays the ability to take leadership at a crucial moment. As he arrives at Robben Island with other political prisoners, the warders shout " Haak! Haak!," Afrikaans for "move," usually addressed to cattle. Mandela and Tefu deliberately set a slower pace, "to show them that we were not everyday criminals but political prisoners being punished for our beliefs."

Naturally the political theme runs through the story and leads inevitably to some of the critical debates that embroiled the movement. In the Defiance Campaign of 1952, for instance, the argument centred on whether the original stance of non-violence was an "inviolable principle" or "a tactic to be used as the situation demanded," a disagreement that pitted Mandela against Gandhi's son, Manilal. Two years later, a key issue was how to conduct the school boycott campaign: Mandela concludes that on this occasion, the National Executive Committee saddled the activists "with a boycott that would be almost impossible to effect." By 1961, in the wake of a less than successful stay- at-home campaign in his "Black Pimpernel" days, he proposed to the ANC executive the "fateful step" of renouncing nonviolence, involving intense disagreement with Chief Luthuli and the National Executive. And much later still he was central to the tense decision to suspend the armed struggle, on Slovo's suggestion. Many such debates took place in the rush and heat of having to make rapid decisions under great pressure. This is, after all, the story of a movement of many people, as well as the account of a singularly brave man.

Yet in the course of these fast-moving events, there were times when Mandela unrepentantly took unilateral action on behalf of the movement or the ANC, without reference to others. In calling off the stay-away in 1961 after the Treason Trial, for instance, Mandela met with local and foreign press and openly questioned the ANC policy of non-violence, to considerable publicity. While the executive criticized him at the time for not consulting with them, Mandela comments, "sometimes one must go public with an idea to push a reluctant organization in the direction you want it to go." Emphasizing as he does the role of leadership throughout, Mandela occasionally reveals a willingness to take independent action that seems to jar with the very disciplined, democratic process of decision-making that the ANC had evolved.

During the struggle, Mandela reassessed his earlier opposition to communism, influenced by his friendships with Party members Moses Kotane, Ismail Meer and Ruth First, and noting the sacrifices they were willing to make. ("I was finding it more and more difficult to justify my prejudice against the party.") It is in his recounting of such events and relationships that a central contradiction becomes apparent. In somewhat laconic capsule paragraphs that interpret key parts of his life, he offers tantalizingly brief glimpses into his thinking that invite fuller exploration. He would seem, for instance, to be well on the way to an overt Marxist interpretation of his experience when he can declare after the Treason Trial, "I went from having an idealistic view of the law as a sword of justice to a perception of the law as a tool used by the ruling class to shape society in a way favourable to itself." But for those trying to identify his political framework, he appears to slide away from the issue when he comments in his address at Rivonia, "The Communist Party sought to emphasize class distinctions whilst the ANC seeks to harmonize them." Other commentaries in the book leave questions like these unresolved, even though on Robben Island he finds it attractive to use a socialist analysis in devising courses for young prisoners from the 70s resistance. It seems that while Mandela is especially strong on the pragmatic politics of the freedom fighter, he has adopted a kind of intellectual eclecticism that stops short of thorough-going political theorizing.

Mandela, however, is entirely thorough-going in another arena. He very readily acknowledges the contribution of both leaders and populace ("It was humbling to see how the suggestions of ordinary people were often far ahead of the leaders' "). He is also generous in his praise of others in the struggle, including rivals such as Robert Sobukwe of the PAC. Indeed this generosity of spirit marks the whole account, with moving tributes to such as Bram Fischer, one of his lawyers, who eventually went underground to join in the struggle more vigorously, ultimately at the cost of his life.

Understandably, the most heartfelt tributes are paid to "the Tambos, the Sisulus, the Luthulis, the Dadoos, the Sobukwes." From these comrades, Mandela learns "that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it." And throughout the whole experience, his own humanity persists: "Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going."

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