“Long Walk to Freedom” By Nelson Mandela (Little, Brown ($24.95, 558 pages) More than 30 years ago, I stood outside the Supreme Court building in Pretoria, South Africa, and watched as a police van drove through the screaming crowd. At the van’s barred windows you could glimpse clenched fists giving the Amandla! (Power) salute of the African National Congress.
That was the last public sighting of Nelson Mandela for 27 years. The next time the world was to see the man who more than any other symbolizes the struggle against apartheid, he would be walking out of a prison near Cape Town, destined to become the country’s first elected black leader.
But on June 12, 1964, there were few in that Pretoria crowd who dared predict Mandela would ever be free. There was just relief the judge had not sentenced Mandela to death, instead giving him a life sentence for treason.
In his autobiography “Long Walk To Freedom,” Mandela recalls that day, speculating that international pressure prevented the judge from passing the death sentence. “He knew that if we were executed, the great majority of the people would regard him as our killer.”
From Pretoria, Mandela and his other longtime partners in the struggle against apartheid were taken to Robben Island, the grim fortress prison off the coast of Cape Town where political prisoners were held. If the South African authorities hoped that by shutting Mandela away from the world he would be forgotten, they were wrong. They also erred in keeping the political prisoners together.
“Our survival depended on understanding what the authorities were attempting to do to us, and sharing that understanding with each other,” Mandela writes. “It would be very hard if not impossible for one man alone to resist.”
During the long years of imprisonment, he learned how to defeat any attempt to rob him of his dignity and pride.
The story of Nelson Mandela starts with his birth in 1918, at Vezo, a tiny village near Umtata, the capital of the Transkei, 550 miles south of Johannesburg near the Natal border.
Mandela’s father was a chief and an adviser to the Thembu royal house. Mandela was educated at Methodist schools and later at the University College of Fort Hare.
Fleeing an arranged tribal marriage, Mandela arrived in Johannesburg in the early 1940s and began studying law. He also met Walter Sisulu, the man he was to share the long years of imprisonment with and the person he credits with introducing him to the ANC.
By the 1950s, Mandela was an established ANC leader, helping to organize the passive resistance demonstrations. With other protesters, Mandela spent four years successfully fighting treason charges.
In the early 1960s, Mandela and other ANC leaders decided change in South Africa could not be achieved without violence. At Mandela’s suggestion, the ANC created a military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation), to carry out sabotage missions.
Some of the best passages of the book are those in which Mandela describes his life underground, moving from house to house as he tried to organize the resistance. He writes with almost a lyrical feeling about his sense of desolation at being separated from his wife, Winnie, and their young children. But Mandela’s days as the Black Pimpernel ended when he was arrested by security police while posing as the chauffeur of a white friend.
Two years later, Mandela and other ANC leaders were charged with treason and received the life sentences, which ended only when Prime Minister F. W. De Klerk, realizing apartheid had failed, began talks with Mandela that were to lead to the historic 1994 election.
Mandela, with the help of journalist Richard Stengel, divides his life into sections, some of which are more powerful than others. When writing about his time on the run and his long years on Robben Island, Mandela compels attention. His words are as powerful as the speech he made at the end of his last treason trial when he outlined why he was prepared to die for his dream of freedom.
Writing about life after prison, however, Mandela gets buried in the endless details involved in working out with De Klerk and the other political groups the agreement that paved the way for the election.
One endearing feature of Mandela’s book is that he appears never to have forgotten the name of anyone who treated him courteously or helped him during the decades of struggle. He also records the names of his enemies - the prison warders who bullied and tortured him unnecessarily, the senior prison officials who relished every petty indignity they could inflict on him.
Mandela makes it clear that he is a pragmatist, a man willing to turn the other cheek if necessary to reach his goal. He does not convey the impression of a man filled with hate and vengeance, and this is perhaps one of the most remarkable things about this memoir by one of this century’s most remarkable men.