February 20, 2019

Happy Black History Month! Today’s book rec is Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. By now I’m pretty well versed in African American history, but I don’t know much at all about the Black diaspora experiences, so I’m trying to change that. This book talks about Mandela’s experience growing up in rural South Africa, going to school, and finally running away to Johannesburg, where he started studying and then practicing law, and his initiation into political life and the African National Congress (the ANC), which was fighting apartheid and soon became a banned political party. His influence in the party grows to the point as he participates in strikes, boycotts, work stoppages, and so on, until he becomes prominent enough to be considered one of the leaders. The ANC’s activities challenge the apartheid government enough that Mandela and a bunch of other members are charged with treason, but the trial, which lasts like four years, ends in their acquittal. From there, Mandela takes to working underground for the ANC, taking meetings around the continent, doing research, fundraising, spreading information about the ANC, and generally organizing resistance to apartheid. He starts to think that there must be a violent aspect to the struggle, since nonviolence is not getting the ANC anywhere, so he starts to organize a militant offshoot of the ANC that will engage in sabotage and, if necessary, guerrilla actions, in order to spur the people into acting and the government into dismantling apartheid. Eventually Mandela and his colleagues are caught, tried, and sentenced to life in prison. They don’t appeal the judgment, since they are proud of their actions and admit to doing them. Mandela spends the next 27 years in jail, leading the resistance in every way that he can, from advocating for the same clothing for African prisoners that white prisoners received, to writing legal briefs for his fellow prisoners, to smuggling information to and from the prison, to striking for better food, and for study time and educational privileges. Many of his fellow inmates, including himself, earned higher degrees while they were on Robben Island because of this. He is able to remain involved in ANC politics through the network of prisoners, the information and newspaper smuggling operation, and the visitors and letters they receive. Eventually he becomes the public face of a movement demanding the release of political prisoners and the legalization of the ANC, and by that time he’s become so prominent that he and the new head of the South African government, deKlerk, start to have discussions about ending the armed struggle and arranging for the first non-racial government with free, fair, one-man-one-vote elections in South Africa, for which the two split a Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a fascinating book by someone whose leadership comes so naturally it’s hard to separate him from his work for the people: everything he does is for the common good. I’d like to learn more about what happened with the ANC while Mandela and his colleagues were inside Robben Island, and some of the other actors bringing down apartheid. (I listened to the audiobook version, which I’ve linked to here.)

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