“Long Walk to Freedom”, the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, describes the South African antiapartheid struggle from the perspective of one of its most important participants. In the book, Mandela describes his childhood; his development into a freedom fighter; his twenty-seven years in prison; and his remarkable role in the construction of a new, democratic South Africa. Long Walk to Freedom was published in 1995, the year after South Africa’s first democratic elections made Mandela the first black president of South Africa.
Mandela begins his book with a description of his genealogy, which is intended to silence rumors that he has a hereditary claim to kingship of the Xhosa people, one of South Africa’s largest cultural groups. Mandela goes on to describe his early childhood, which was spent herding cattle and practicing traditional Xhosa fighting. When Mandela was old enough, his father sent him to school, which was a relatively rare privilege for a child in his village. Mandela excelled at school and an uncle paid for him to continue his education at a series of elite boarding schools.
In the next two sections of the book, Mandela describes his young adulthood and his gradual transformation into a leader of South Africa’s freedom movement. As a young man, Mandela moved to Johannesburg and became active in the African National Congress (ANC), an organization that fought for the rights of black South Africans. Early on, Mandela adopted a leadership role in the ANC’s Youth League, a subgroup that advocated more radical ideals than did the main organization.
South Africa had long been ruled by unjust racial laws, but the situation changed for the worse in 1948, when an all-white vote brought the conservative National Party into power. From that time onward, the National Party codified and expanded South Africa’s racist laws, creating the system of apartheid, which means separateness. Apartheid laws were not only designed to keep the members of South Africa’s many racial groups separate; they were also specifically crafted to keep the country’s white minority in a position of power and privilege.
Apartheid laws prevented black South Africans from leaving tiny reservations called homelands unless they carried a pass document that proved they held employment in a white area. African, mixed-race, and Indian South Africans could not legally ride all-white buses, enter all-white recreation areas, or even sit down to eat dinner with white friends. Interracial relationships were outlawed, and separate educational systems were created for each race. By far the lowest educational standards were introduced for black South Africans, and elite schools like the ones Mandela had attended were closed.
Mandela describes how the ANC and partner organizations mobilized against apartheid, instituting the Defiance Campaign in 1951. During this nonviolent campaign, Mandela and other volunteers peacefully broke apartheid laws—boarding all-white trains or entering neighborhoods designated for people of another race—and went to prison. These actions gained the protesters attention and sympathy from liberal white South Africans as well as from the rest of the world.
Although the Defiance Campaign did not succeed in its goal of eliminating apartheid laws, Mandela claims it was successful in increasing communication between and determination within South Africa’s many freedom organizations. In 1955, Mandela helped lead the Congress of the People, a summit of all the groups in South Africa that advocated freedom and equality. The main event at the Congress of the People was the reading of a document called the Freedom Charter, which demanded equality and democratic representation for everyone. The Congress of the People ended in a police raid, with many of its leaders carried away in handcuffs. Apartheid leaders declared the Freedom Charter an illegal communist document.
Mandela was not immediately arrested for his participation in the Congress of the People. Apartheid leaders spent several months gathering evidence and creating a legal case against the leaders of the freedom movement.