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Agitating for Equality : A political activist who exchanged a prison cell for the president's office : LONG WALK TO FREEDOM: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, By Nelson Mandela (Little, Brown: $24.95; 558 pp.)

January 08, 1995|Chris Goodrich | Chris Goodrich is a regular book reviewer for The Times

On Aug. 5, 1962, after nearly two years underground following the prohibition of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela--lawyer, political revolutionary, "The Black Pimpernel"--was captured and charged with incitement to strike and leaving South Africa without a passport. Although the offenses carried penalties of up to 10 years, they were relatively minor compared to the others Mandela would face in the course of his life: He had been acquitted of treason the previous year, and in 1964 he would be convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison. Mandela's incitement trial proved pivotal, however, for the uneasiness his trial produced in members of the South African legal Establishment caused the defendant--and future president--to have "something of a revelation."

Both the judge and the state's prosecutor, Mandela writes in "Long Walk to Freedom," "were not only uncomfortable because I was a colleague brought low, but because I was an ordinary man being punished for his beliefs. In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realized the role I could play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant. I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness, and democracy in a society that dishonored those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even within the fortress of the enemy."

The South African government had no idea, at the time at least, that it played a major role in creating one of the great political figures of the 20th Century. From reading "Long Walk to Freedom," however, it's equally clear that Mandela would not have been denied his place in history even under a much more tolerant government; so long as his native land treated nonwhites as second-class citizens, Mandela would have found a way to agitate for equality. Mandela is by no means the first political activist to have exchanged a prison cell for the president's office, but few, even in that august company, seem like veritable forces of nature. Mandela comes off as a modest man in this autobiography, yet one reads it with awe, watching Mandela wear down his enemies through sheer moral authority and consistency. Given the principled beliefs, uncanny tactical instincts, astonishing patience and relentless confidence displayed by the author throughout this volume, the success of Mandela's cause seems almost foreordained.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, born into a royal family of the Thembu tribe, Xhosa people, in the Transkei section of South Africa in 1918, was raised by an important chief after his father's death. It was in the chief's village, Mqhekezweni, that he absorbed the ability to lead; the chief lived by the idea, Mandela writes, that a leader is "like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind." That lesson is everywhere in evidence here, for Mandela's radical challenge of apartheid South Africa was underpinned by a traditional, even ancestral conservatism. Mandela paints himself as a listener rather than a talker, a reader rather than a writer, a persuader rather than a proselytizer, so it's somewhat surprising to learn that he had a reputation, early on, as a firebrand. He did help radicalize the ANC in the 1950s, pushing its leadership toward alliances with the Communist Party and eventually into active violence against the state as head of the ANC's military arm, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), but one senses that he turned to guns and bombs reluctantly, and purely for short-term, tactical reasons.

The government no doubt sighed in relief when Mandela took up residence on Robben Island, where he would spend 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. And it's true that Mandela, following his conspiracy conviction, had little communication with, let alone control of, the ANC . . . but that hardly mattered, for every year he spent behind bars ensured the growth of his moral authority in the larger world. South Africa's leaders eventually recognized as much, and although Mandela and his fellow political prisoners suffered routine abuse for decades--poor food, inadequate clothing, routine humiliation, isolation from family--in later years they treated him like an important guest. It's almost comical learning of Mandela's being moved, in 1988, to a three-bedroom cottage with a swimming pool and a personal Afrikaner chef; the house lay within a huge prison compound, true, but was nonetheless much larger than anything Mandela had occupied before becoming a convict. The government hoped its new, respectful treatment would lead Mandela to accept commutation of his sentence and apolitical retirement in the Transkei, but naturally the ploy failed.

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