South Africa Avoided Civil War Through One Man’s Forgiveness – Book Review of Nelson Mandela’s Long Road to Freedom

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Recently, I watched the DVD of the 2009 movie Invictus. Starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, and Matt Damon as captain of the South African rugby team, and directed by Clint Eastwood, it is a marvelous movie. It tells the story of how South African President Mandela hosted the 1995 World Cup of Rugby and cannily used the Springboks rugby team to knit the 43 million inhabitants of South Africa together into one nation – despite the decades of bitterness and hatred caused by apartheid.

My wife and I lived in Johannesburg, South Africa from 1972 to 1974 when I was working for Citibank, and our first daughter was born there. I spent many afternoons in Ellis Park, Johannesburg – the stadium where the South Africa rugby team, the Springboks, later defeated the New Zealand All Blacks before 62,000 spectators in the finals of the World Cup in 1995. Seeing the movie (for the second time) inspired me to read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Road to Freedom.

Southern Africa in the early 1970s was a cauldron of fighting and civil war. During this period, there was ongoing guerilla warfare in Angola and Mozambique; both countries gained their independence from Portugal in 1975. During our stay in South Africa, there was also a brutal civil war in Rhodesia. As we departed South Africa in mid-1974, I bet several friends that Rhodesia would be called by a different name within five years. My prediction was off by one year:  Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980.

During the dark days of apartheid, I followed South Africa politics very closely. Even in 1974 – fifteen years before Mandela was released from prison – I knew about him and his powerful leadership of the African National Congress.

There is little doubt that Nelson Mandela was one of the giant statesmen of the 20th century. His negotiations with South African President F.W. DeKlerk to allow free elections in 1994 and his subsequent leadership as president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 was one of the great acts of statesmanship in the past century.

Befitting a complicated life, Long Walk to Freedom is a long read, more than 750 pages in paperback. He wrote a large part of it in 1976 when he was jailed in the infamous prison on Robben Island. He wrote secretly at night – approximately 10 to 15 pages each session – and passed what he had written to two fellow prisoners, members of the African National Congress,  for their edits. Each night, Mandela made one copy of that day’s pages of the memoir, which was given to Mac Maharaj, another ANC activist imprisoned at Robben Island, in case his original copy was discovered and confiscated. In fact, Mandela’s copy was discovered, and it was Maharaj’s copy, when he was released in 1976 about halfway through Mandela’s imprisonment,  that became the basic template of Long Walk to Freedom. After Mandela’s release in February 1990, Mandela collaborated with journalist and author Richard Stengel, who made 70 hours of tapes of conversations with Mandela, to finalize Long Walk to Freedom.

Born in 1918, Mandela was the son of the chief of the Xhosa-speaking Tembu people. He was baptized in the United Methodist Church and attended a school founded by Methodist missionaries. Throughout his life, Mandela was strongly influenced by Christian values.

Instead of succeeding his father as chief, Mandela went to Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.  In his memoir, he wrote:  “For young black South Africans like myself, it was Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one.” Many leading black activists in the anti-apartheid movement, such as Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, and Desmond Tutu, as well as future leaders of other southern Africa countries, such as Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, and Robert Mugabe, studied at Fort Hare University.

Rather than returning to his Xhosa homeland where an arranged marriage awaited him and where he was in line to become chief of his clan at some later date, Mandela decided to go to Johannesburg to become a lawyer. Studying the law and serving as an articled clerk (a sort of intern or apprentice), Mandela barely eked out a living for almost a decade, as he slowly progressed in the legal profession. Finally, when he was 35 years old, he and Oliver Tambo  opened the first black attorney’s office in South Africa, in 1953. From the first, they were deluged with black clients, often needing to thread their way through a crowd in the hallway to enter their offices.

Previously, in 1950, Mandela had joined the African National Congress, which was a political organization dedicated to winning civil and political rights for the black majority in white-ruled South Africa. In 1948, the racist National Party came to power, and apartheid — South Africa’s institutionalized system of white supremacy and racial segregation — became official government policy. With the loss of black rights under apartheid, black enrollment in the African National Congress rapidly grew. Mandela became one of the ANC’s leaders, and in 1952 he was made deputy national president of the ANC. He helped organize nonviolent strikes, boycotts, marches, and other acts of civil disobedience. During the 1950s, Mandela was banned three times by the government. To be banned meant that Mandela could not leave Johannesburg and that he was restricted from attending any meetings, including those of the ANC.

In 1956, Mandela along with 156 other black leaders was arrested for high treason. The treason trial lasted for many years. As the government’s case was flimsy at best, the final Treason Trial commenced in 1959 (almost three years after their arrest). By then, the government made the case only against Mandela and 29 other members of the ANC. The prosecution concluded its case in March 1960. But then, on March 21, 1960, the infamous “Sharpsville Massacre” occurred. The police, greatly outnumbered by a large crowd of black protesters, panicked and fired on the demonstrators, killing 69 blacks and wounding 180. Shortly thereafter, the ANC was banned and needed to go underground. It was illegal to be a member. In 1961, Mandela was acquitted of treason, five years after the Treason Trial had begun.

Before Sharpsville, the ANC’s policy was to operate only in non-violent ways. Protests, demonstrations, and civil disobedience – but no violence. After Sharpsville, that changed. Mandela was the key leader in helping to organize a paramilitary branch of the ANC to engage in acts of sabotage against the infrastructure of the South African government. The paramilitary branch was called “Umkhonto we Sizwe” (The Spear of the Nation) and was to be separate from the ANC (although run by ANC members).

It was during this period that Mandela joined the South African Communist Party. Although he disclaims any membership in the Communist party in his autobiography, historians have agreed that for a brief period before his imprisonment in 1962, he joined the party – but primarily for pragmatic reasons to co-ordinate opposition to the government. In one of his several trials, Mandela was asked if he was a Communist. “If by Communist, you mean a member of the Communist Party and a person who believes in the theory of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, and who adheres strictly to the discipline of the party, I did not become a Communist,” he replied. The answer was both true and evasive.

Following his acquittal in the Treason Trial, Mandela went underground, fearing that the government would arrest him again on other charges. He travelled throughout the country and also visited London and capitals of African nations to organize support for the ANC’s battle against apartheid. After two years on the run, he was arrested again in 1962 for illegally leaving the country and for inciting strikes. Convicted and sentenced to five years at Robben Island Prison, he was put on trial again in 1963 with seven other ANC members, who were arrested at Rivonia in possession of a store of weapons. Charged with sabotage, treason, and violent conspiracy, Mandela admitted to many of the charges against him and eloquently defended his militant activities against a racist state during the trial. His defense at the Rivonia Trial was deeply moving and brilliant, and for decades afterwards, the text of it was not allowed to be printed, and possessing a copy of it was illegal. On June 12, 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment rather than a possible death sentence.

For the next 26 years, Mandela was imprisoned – first at Robben Island until 1982, and then in Pollsmoor prison on the outskirts of Cape Town. During his 18 years imprisoned on Robben Island, he lived in a cell block approximately nine feet long by six feet wide – room only for a bed and desk with a chair. Several hundred pages of his memoir describes his time on Robben Island. Conditions were poor, and the guards were harsh and cruel. Racism pervaded the prisons of South Africa, as white prisoners were treated better and received more wholesome food than blacks, coloured (a term the government used to describe mixed-race people), and Indian prisoners. Prisoners were also forced to do backbreaking labor. No news from the outside world was allowed, and all mail was censored.

But Mandela, throughout his 28 years in prison, kept himself fit by doing up to 90 minutes of bodybuilding exercise a day.  It was during this period when Mandela secretly at night wrote a sizable portion of Long Walk to Freedom.

In 1982, he was transferred to Pollsmoor on the mainland, where his prison conditions were dramatically better than on Robben Island. Mandela was even allowed to cultivate a vegetable garden, and he became a passionate gardener. In 1985, Mandela was offered his freedom publicly in parliament by the president of South Africa, P.W. Botha, if he “would unconditionally reject violence as a political instrument.” This was the sixth conditional offer of freedom made to Mandela over the previous over the previous ten years.  Mandela’s answer was the same as always:  As leader of the ANC, he would not negotiate the terms and conditions of his freedom and that of other political prisoners until he was a free man. He wrote a powerful speech that was given to his daughter, Zindzi, to read to a large crowd. The speech laid out his reasons for not leaving prison:  “Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter contracts …”

Even so, during the next five years, Mandela and the South African government negotiated continually. From Mandela’s perspective, there were four critical issues to discuss:  the armed struggle of the ANC against the government, the ANC’s alliance with the South African Communist Party, the goal of majority rule (by the non-white peoples), and racial reconciliation.

In August 1989, De Klerk became president of South Africa. Things changed almost immediately. Within months seven of Mandela’s closest ANC colleagues, who were political prisoners on Robben Island, were released. And De Klerk began a systematic dismantling of the building blocks of apartheid. Then, in February 1990, Mandela was released from prison at the age of 71, after 28 years in prison. De Klerk had taken the measure of Mandela, and vice versa, and they both believed that they could work together for South Arica’s common good.

And indeed they did. For the next four years, in good times and bad, with civil disruption and violence (especially between Zulu and Xhosa tribe members), they worked together in good faith to hold a fair election for all citizens of South Africa – black, white, colored, and Asian. The vote took place in April 1994, and Nelson Mandela was elected president. On May 2, 1994, De Klerk made a gracious concession speech. Then, Mandela made a great speech. “Free at last!” he said, echoing Martin Luther King Jr.; later, he said: “This is the time to heal old wounds and build a new South Africa.”

In one of the best lines in the movie Invictus, the captain of the Springboks, Francois Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, says to his wife after touring the prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for more than two decades:  “I was thinking how you can spend almost 30 years in a tiny cell and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there.”

Mandela served as president for five years. He stepped down in 1999, at the age of 81. He died in 2013, at age 95.

The Long Walk to Freedom tells the story of a great man and a great statesman. It was largely through his character and his leadership that South Africa shed the terrible system of apartheid and racism and became a multi-racial society.

While Mandela’s legacy is secure, his country’s isn’t. South Africa has taken a turn for the worse since Nelson Mandela left office, suffering from what a recent Bloomberg story called “chaos, crime, and corruption.” The nation needs another political giant like Mandela before it goes the way of Zimbabwe.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $6.5 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.


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