I read A Long Walk To Freedom as part of a college history class, but ended up keeping it and re-reading it a few years later.
Even in college, this book was on those “100 biographies that everyone should read” lists. But it was so long and the topic unfamiliar enough to me that I figured it would be one of those “100 biographies that everyone should read, but never actually does” books.
Turns out, the book is absolutely worthwhile. And while long, it is very well written for an autobiography. Nelson Mandela is one of those “but wait, there’s more” people in history. He’s absolutely worth learning more about.
What I Liked
I loved the details & scope. Mandela does not shy away from sharing intimate details and setting context. The context is especially helpful. I’m an American and was 9 when he became President of South Africa…and 5 when Apartheid ended. The background and context takes a while to set up, but it very useful.
Mandela does not shy away from his struggles, weaknesses, and challenges. He is someone, like Dr. King, Gandhi, and others, that we celebrate for their moral achievements. So it’s easy to forget that he was still human. I appreciate the fact that, even though he only shares his side of the story, he doesn’t avoid difficult parts of his life (especially his troubled family life and relationships with his close friends.)
I appreciate that this book even exists, and that we have an inside narrative of one of the great moral struggles of history. Dr. King and Gandhi were both assassinated before they could look back over their life and share their life lessons. Many other great lives fell into ill health before they could share their own lessons.
I like how the book is paced. It’s engaging and moves at a good chronological clip. It only gets a bit bogged down and confusing at the end (mainly due to so much moving at such a fast clip in real life).
What I Did Not Like
The book is long. I don’t think it could be shorter, but all things equal, it’s long and a bit of a time commitment.
I wish there was a quick glossary (maybe that’s been added in recent editions). But towards the end of the book, there’s a flurry of acronyms and organizations that are difficult to keep up with.
The end of the book needed a bit more structure. There was too much happening for a chronological approach to work.
The struggle against Apartheid was long. I was truly a generational struggle maintained not only by Mandela, but by so many everyday South Africans – day in and day out for decades.
Like Dr. King, Mandela’s genius was in organizing and maintaining a large coalition of people to act as one according to a single strategy over a long span of time. That seems to be the difference between a protest and a movement. Most anyone can organize a protest – even a large one. But most protests fizzle out to no effect. A movement has clear objectives, sticks to a dedicated strategy, seeks out political allies, and is more vulnerable to distraction and disagreement than any enemy.
Mandela was in prison for so long. It’s one thing to theorize about developing mental fortitude, discipline, and resilience. It’s another to read about it in action. Those are all virtues worth developing before you need them.
Like the American Civil Rights & Jim Crow, it’s fascinating (and deeply saddening) to read about just how Apartheid was maintained, and how even though many white South Africans may have been ambivalent or theoretically not a fan of the tactics of Apartheid…their day to day self-interest helped to keep it in place for much too long.
Even though it’s not covered much by this book, I also find Mandela’s approach to reconciliation interesting. While no country has done healing perfectly, I think it’s always worthwhile to look around and try to learn lessons (for better and for worse).