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Indispensable man
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The Indispensable Man
Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. By Nelson Mandela. Little, Brown, 1994. 558 pp.

On 10 May 1994, South Africa held celebrations to mark the inauguration of the first president it had ever chosen through nonracial elections. The new president was Nelson Mandela, a 75-year-old black man who decades earlier had initiated an armed struggle against the white-controlled apartheid regime and spent 10,000 days in prison for his revolutionary activities. His release from this long captivity in February 1990 marked the beginning of the end of apartheid. This memoir is Mandela’s own story, tracing his life from boyhood to the leadership of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC), the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize that he shared with then-President Frederik W. de Klerk, and the presidency.

Mandela had earlier put his story on paper, only to have it confiscated when construction workers accidentally uncovered its hiding place. The present volume, written and published after his 1990 release, gracefully and reflectively combines an account of his life with the larger story of the growth of the revitalized ANC and the efforts of nonwhite South Africans to claim the freedom so long denied them. He describes the larger aspects of the struggle against apartheid, always emphasizing that it was a collaborative effort bringing together vast numbers of people, while retaining the essential human tone and singular outlook of an autobiographer. Some passages are as striking as they are simple, such as the sentence where he tells of being allowed to embrace his wife after 21 years of enforced physical separation. [End Page 165]

Mandela’s narrative takes us back beyond the already-familiar terrain of his later public career, into the world of black South Africa and its tribal history. Born in a small village in the Xhosa-speaking southeastern region of Transkei in 1918, Mandela was groomed—as his father had been before him—to serve as a counselor to the rulers of the Thembu tribe. His domestic ties were strong—Mandela ruefully notes how often his work as a freedom fighter deprived him of any possibility of a normal family life—and his education extensive. He attended University College of Fort Hare, an institution founded by Scottish missionaries that was the only residential center of higher learning available to blacks in South Africa. Later he read law at the University of Witwatersrand, completing his course of studies in 1942.

It was at school, Mandela observes, where he learned that the simple freedoms of his provincial, rural boyhood were an illusion: the harsh truth was that he and all South Africans of color were shut out of the political system and denied fundamental rights. While living in Johannesburg, Mandela gravitated to the three-decade-old ANC, which he joined in 1944. It was not long before Mandela and other rising young figures like Walter Sisulu and Mandela’s law partner Oliver Tambo began to mount a militant challenge to the ANC’s aging leadership. Unhappy with the passive-protest strategy of past years, the younger men began to orchestrate strikes and publicly denounce the official policy and ideology of apartheid, or racial separation, that the National Party (NP) government of Prime Minister D.F. Malan elaborated in a string of measures starting in 1948 and stretching into the early 1960s under successive NP cabinets.

For Mandela, the essential principles of the long struggle for freedom are to be found in the ANC’s 1955 Freedom Charter, which emphasizes nonracialism, liberty, and individual rights. First arrested and imprisoned in 1952 for his role in the “Defiance Campaign” of nonviolent civil disobedience directed against apartheid laws, Mandela was free in time to take part in the deliberations that led up to the drafting and presentation of the Charter. The official response was the arrest on charges of high treason of 156 antiapartheid activists in late 1956. For the next four and a half years, Mandela and his colleagues were in the dock, with Mandela himself acting as defense counsel for the final year of this “Treason Trial.”

When the court at last found the defendants not guilty in...