Monday, November 24, 2008

Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom: lessons our country badly needs to learn

I RECALL watching that familiar video clip of Nelson Mandela coming out of prison after 27 years. I had no idea who he was, of course, but from the look on his face and the people's reaction, it wasn't that hard to think that he was a man who shook the world.

Since then I've heard his name mentioned everywhere—in Oprah, in CNN, in the papers. They always described him as a good man, someone who gave his life for the freedom of the African people.

I've read his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, recently. It is a detailed account of his life, starting with his childhood at the Transkei, his coming of age at Johannesburg, his joining the African National Congress (ANC), his battle against the oppresive apartheid system, and his eventual imprisonment for three decades.

The book, 800 pages thick, is dotted with lessons written by a old man ripened in experiences. Unlike the other autobiographies I've read, Nelson Mandela does not exaggerate—he even downplays his accomplishments and hardly mentions them. He is, however, generous in describing other people. He always has a good word to say about someone, even his worst opponents, believing that behind every cruel hatred is a loving heart.

The book is also a searing description of white supremacy in South Africa embodied in the apartheid system. In that policy, the Blacks were considered inferior compared to Whites. They were second-class citizens who were overthrown from their lands just because the Whites said so. Their basic human rights were taken away from them.

Mandela spent his life fighting this system, and the book details how he did just that. The reader would get a picture of how liberation movements work and why they do the things they do.

My favorite part was his imprisonment, and the ordeals he and his friends had gone through. He described his unwavering resolve to continue the fight for South African liberation even when he was in prison in Robben Island. His description of the books he read, the garden he tended, the tennis games he played, and the cherished visits of his wife gave a deeply human side to him. Freedom fighters aren't just flesh and blood coated with so much passion—they are humans, too.

Other than the Bible, this is the next book I'd recommend to our government leaders. Nelson Mandela makes it a point to emphasize the qualities of good leadership—the most memorable of which is when he pointed out that for a leader to rule his people effectively, he must know them.

Photo courtesy of Lex Loizides (@lexloiz), via Twitter

Readers might be overwhelmed by the effort Nelson Mandela has taken to include so many names in his accounts. While reading those parts, I often got lost in my thought—but this, in itself, is forgivable, because it shows that Mandela remembers the people who've helped him in his cause, helping shape the person that he is now.

After flipping through the last pages, I wished I could shake hands with him.



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