Thursday, May 6, 2010

Long Walk to Freedom

Nelson Mandela - 630 pps.

Nelson Mandela and the Africa National Congress (ANC) had a huge effect on history. With Mandela’s release from prison, the supports of the racially divided apartheid government of South Africa began to crumble. In 1994 the development of a new South African constitution prompted the first free election in South African history, with Mandela emerging as victor. Mandela assumed the role of President and inherited problems ranging from insuring the economic stability of the county to protecting minority rights. Mandela published his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom,"during the first few years of his presidency, both for a greater understanding of his party and ideology and a way to quiet fears of a new black majority government in South Africa. The book, while informative, is biased, but can still be appreciated for its historical significance.

To understand the themes in the book and how it portrays the ANC, South Africa, and the racial tension under the apartheid government, one needs to understand the progression of events presented in the book and Mandela's ideological changes. Mandela was born in a small town in a central-eastern region of South Africa called Mvezo. He describes his idyllic childhood by remembering the sweeping landscape and flora of the region, and the peculiar customs of the Thembu dynasty. After being pulled into the royal family he was able to get an education and eventually wound up working as a lawyer in Johannesburg. There Mandela got his first taste of an ANC meeting, discussing politics and becoming one of the ANC's leading members. Even then Mandela had a strong sense of racial equality, calling for support from the Communist Party as well as political organizations for Coloureds and Indians. At this point in the story we see the ANC start to change, going from a peaceful protesting organization to the creation of the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe wing of the ANC, a group set on the sabotage of apartheid buildings and infrastructure. Mandela spends time underground avoiding authorities but eventually is caught, put on trial, and sentenced to life in prison. Mandela spends a great portion of his book describing his life at Robben Island, the relationships built and broken there, and his changing views on race. Under pressure from the rest of the world, the apartheid government under Frederik Willem de Klerk released Mandela and peacefully organized a ceasefire and a transitional government to favor universal suffrage and the abolishment of a white government. Core themes as presented in "Long Walk" became ever-present in Mandela’s career; the most significant being racial equality and ideological tolerance.

I have mentioned several times the extent to which Nelson Mandela promotes not only a black majority but equality for all races in South Africa. During his tenure as head of the ANC, Mandela promoted the acceptance of the Communist Party, Coloureds, and Indians. At first he was apprehensive of the role they would play in the ANC, stating in his memoirs “while I had made progress in terms of my opposition to communism, I still feared the influence of Indians.” Mandela progressed from this thinking toward a more universal ideology once these racial issues came up in constitutional revisions. The idea of racial equality was highly favored by the minorities in South Africa and the apartheid government. The assurance of safety and rights after a transfer of power is always a major worry, so reiterating it in interviews, speeches, and finally his published autobiography proved to be a successful public relations move. The move also eased the nerves of the international community by showing that a dictator or terrorist was not gaining control of the country, but the level-headed ANC.

The message of racial equality alone is good, but when looking at the audience of the book, some discrepancies arise. Mandela was worried that the new ANC-lead government would fail in its mission. For decades prior to the end of the apartheid sanctions and economic trouble has plagued the country. Foreign investment was leaving at an alarming rate as the racist government seemed doomed to fail, and the security of any investment went sour. Mandela catered his autobiography on the populations abroad in hopes of giving insight toward his policies. He saw that without new investors, getting the white minority to buy into the government, or other countries for that matter, his plan for South Africa would fail. A book has always been a great way to convey ideas and hopes in a subtle manner. Mandela’s book was successful in this regard because it brought skeptics on board with his new regime. Whether Mandela’s beliefs truly changed from his early leadership of the ANC or he was being the classic Machiavellian is unsure, but this book did much to help stabilize the early days of Mandella's presidency.

Mandela also took care in making sure that the ANC got credit for most of the policy changes while he remained a figurehead. In many cases in the book, Mandela downplays his significance stating that he was simply chosen due to his orating skills or his renown. He also made sure to downplay any talk of militant action by arguing it was his last recourse. When at an ANC meeting he finally argued that “the state had given us no alternative to violence…It was wrong to subject our people to armed attacks by the state without offering them some kind of alternative” few were surprised. Many foreign nationals were scared that the man coming to power was a former terrorist and saboteur. He downplayed the actions of the Umkhoto we Sizwe as minor, necessary, and with minimal human life loss. Evidently, his rhetoric was successful.

Nelson Mandela catered "Long Walk" too much to his audience. Mandela should have been more matter-of-fact, given the importance of his role in South Africa. The fact that nearly every statement in "Long Walk" was written to ease the minds of the people affected by the change in government, casts aspersions on whether or not the events in "Long Walk" are portrayed accurately or to give the ANC the best face. Mandela described the leaders of the ANC as moderate and continually showcased their peaceful demonstrations and peace talks. He carefully skirted around the fact that he brought a military regiment into the country to bomb buildings. He ignores his early ideas of a black South Africa. He only describes one white person as being despicable, and that was the despicable Suitcase. While the book gives historians a great piece of a puzzle of the death of the apartheid, there is still much that had reduced significance or was only referred to in a page. If Mandela had written this as a reflection piece today, the details of not-so-savory events would prove invaluable to the understanding of the outlawed political movements in South Africa. While serving his own purposes, Mandela leaves historians with much to desire.

Gripes aside, Long Walk to Freedom is a well-written, informative autobiography. The story of Mandela doing the seemingly impossible in bringing about a peaceful change in government while gaining support from outside nations and from the inside from the minority remnants of the government is undeniably compelling. Though biased and particularly tailored to naysayers, the book has significant historical importance and does a good job showing the political theory and actions of the ANC and their rise to power. Without it, the intimate knowledge of the individual situation would have been unseen or unappreciated and the opinions and ideas of a great political mind and leader would have gone unnoticed.

-Maj. Major Major Major