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Long Walk to Freedom

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Long Walk to Freedom

The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

Little, Brown US,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Nelson Mandela’s candid, heroic life story inspires, informs and instructs

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Reading this firsthand, contemporaneous account of Nelson Mandela’s life is an extraordinary opportunity. Mandela, a South African freedom fighter and a political prisoner for 27 years, tells his own saga of how he helped his black countrymen throw off their apartheid chains, how the African National Congress waged and won its struggle, and how he became his nation’s first black president. Learn all this and more, directly from the living legend who brought it to pass. getAbstract recommends this compelling autobiography, an inside view of South Africa’s struggle and the revered Mandela’s unique political life.


  • Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 in the Transkei region of South Africa.
  • He is a member of the Xhosa nation and the son of a Thembu chief.
  • Mandela received a good education for a black South African of his time and became a lawyer.
  • As a young man, he became active in the African National Congress (ANC).
  • The Nationalists, an Afrikaner party, took power in South Africa in 1948. They quickly instituted apartheid, a codified system of oppression against the nation’s blacks.
  • In 1952, Mandela and a black partner formed a Johannesburg law firm to represent poor blacks. They brought many police brutality cases to court, but won few.
  • The police arrested and confined Mandela numerous times, sentencing him in 1964 to life imprisonment for “facilitating violent revolution.”
  • Mandela spent 27 years in prison. South Africa freed him in 1990.
  • As ANC president, Mandela negotiated with South African President F.W. de Klerk to plan a new “government of national unity.” Both won Nobel Peace Prizes in 1993.
  • In 1994, Mandela was elected as South Africa’s first black president.


The Birth of the “Troublemaker”

Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in a small village in South Africa’s Transkei region. His father named him Rolihlahla, which colloquially translates to “troublemaker” in Xhosa. This moniker proved prophetic. Mandela was born to a noble lineage. His father was a chief of the Thembu tribe, part of the ancient Xhosa nation. As a child, Mandela was a “herd-boy,” tending calves and sheep. His meager diet consisted primarily of “mealies” (corn). He attended a small one-room schoolhouse in his village, often wearing his father’s cutoff pants secured by a string around the waist.

“My life, and that of most Xhosas...was shaped by custom, ritual and taboo.”

When Mandela was nine, his father died. His family sent him to live with Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the Thembu’s acting regent in Mqhekezweni, “the great place,” Thembuland’s provincial capital. He received a good education for a black South African of his generation, studying at Healdtown, a Wesleyan college in Fort Beaufort, and at the University College of Fort Hare, in Alice. While he was a student, the regent arranged for him to marry the daughter of a Thembu priest. He refused and ran away to Johannesburg.

A Rebel from the Start

Mandela went to work as a night watchman at Crown Mines, a local gold mine. He used subterfuge to get the job, pretending that the regent, a respected figure throughout black South Africa, approved of his move to Johannesburg. Mine officials quickly learned the truth and told Mandela to return immediately to Mqhekezweni. Refusing to leave Johannesburg, Mandela lived briefly with a cousin. Then he moved in with Reverend J. Mabutho, but he did not tell the minister that the regent wanted him back in Mqhekezweni. When Rev. Mabutho learned of Mandela’s deception, he made him leave his home, but arranged for him to stay with neighbors.

“The freedom struggle was not merely a question of making speeches, holding meetings, passing resolutions and sending deputations, but of meticulous organization, militant mass action and...willingness to suffer and sacrifice.”

Mandela went to work as a clerk for the law firm of Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman, and took correspondence courses from UNISA, the University of South Africa. Despite his poverty, his eventual goal was to be a lawyer. He often lacked enough to eat, so the law firm’s secretaries sometimes brought him food. To save money, he moved to a hostel that the Witwatersrand Native Labor Association (WNLA) ran for black people from across South Africa, including Zulus, Namibians, Xhosas and Swazis. In 1942, Mandela earned his bachelor’s degree. He enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand for his law degree. He was the only black law student.

Fighting for Freedom

Mandela became active with the African National Congress (ANC) and its Youth League. He served on the Transvaal ANC Executive Committee. He and other young believers in “militant African nationalism” tried to convince the ANC’s head, Dr. A.B. Xuma, to take a more activist stance for black political equality. During this period of his life, Mandela also got married to Evelyn Mase, his first wife.

“Apartheid...represented the codification in one oppressive system of all the laws and regulations that had kept Africans in an inferior position to whites for centuries.”

In 1948, the National Party came to power in South Africa and instituted apartheid, the political separation and oppression of blacks. The Afrikaners, who sympathized with the Nazis in World War II, were now ascendant. The Nationalists quickly outlawed South Africa’s Communist Party and enacted many laws to restrict the black population. In response, Mandela and his ANC comrades began to engage in civil disobedience. The police soon arrested Mandela, confining him briefly. He was later arrested again and put on trial with other ANC members. The court found them guilty of “statutory” communism, that is, opposition to the government. The judge sentenced them to nine months’ imprisonment, but suspended the sentence.

“While I was not prepared to hurl the white man into the sea, I would have been perfectly happy if he climbed aboard his steamships and left the continent of his own volition.”

By 1952, Mandela had started a law firm with Oliver Tambo, a tribesman from Pondoland in the Transkei. The authorities denigrated them as “kaffir” lawyers, a racial slander. Their firm represented blacks in numerous police brutality cases, but seldom won in court. In 1953, as part of apartheid, the Nationalist government resettled blacks from their urban homes to remote rural regions. Whites moved into formerly black areas, in many cases taking over nice homes previously owned by well-to-do blacks. In response, Mandela called for an end to passive resistance. He began advocating violence against the apartheid government. The ANC censured Mandela for his remarks. In 1953, the police banned him from political action. The ban expired in 1955, but the government reinstated it within a year and restricted Mandela to Johannesburg.

“Nonviolent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules...But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end.”

He began training as an amateur boxer, something he had done intermittently in the past. “Many times,” he says, “I unleashed my anger and frustration on a punching bag rather than...on a comrade or even a policeman.” But, he notes, “I was never an outstanding boxer...I had neither enough power to compensate for my lack of speed, nor enough speed to make up for my lack of power.”


In 1956, South African security police arrested Mandela and 155 other leaders, including nearly every ANC official. The charge was high treason, but the leaders were released pending trial. In pretrial proceedings, prosecutors claimed that Mandela and the ANC wanted to replace the government with a Russian-style government. Ninety-five defendants eventually stood trial. The government moved the pending trial to Pretoria, and brought a new indictment, charging the defendants with planning violence against the state.

“The key to being underground is to be invisible. Just as there is a way to walk in a room in order to...stand out, there is a way of walking and behaving that makes you inconspicuous.”

Mandela’s marriage was on the rocks. Evelyn left with their sons Makgatho and Thembi, and their daughter, Makaziwe. Shortly after, Mandela fell in love with Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela, known as Winnie. He filed for divorce from Evelyn and married Winnie in 1958. She quickly became active in the ANC’s Women’s League.

“Even freedom fighters practice denial, and in my cell...I realized I was not prepared for the reality of capture and confinement.”

In 1959, South Africa’s parliament approved the Promotion of Bantu Self Government Act, creating eight “ethnic bantustan” communities across the nation, providing only 13% of its land for 70% of its people, the black population. Mandela’s formal trial commenced that August. In March 1960, police killed 69 Africans and wounded more than 400 in the Sharpeville massacre, shooting many demonstrators in the back. This set off national protests. The government, suddenly in crisis, declared a state of emergency.

“Strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation; your spirit can be full even when your stomach is empty.”

The interminable “treason trial” finally ended in March 1961, after four years. The presiding judge, Justice F.L. Rumpff, and two other justices ruled for the defense. The defendants briefly celebrated, but after the verdict, the government changed its tactics in trials of black leaders. The authorities vowed not to lose again. To solicit damning testimony, security forces began to beat and torture witnesses. This became commonplace in South Africa.

“The talks, contrary to expectation, were conducted with seriousness and good humor.”

Though found innocent, Mandela went into hiding. The security forces issued new warrants for his arrest. He traveled surreptitiously, sometimes posing as a chauffeur or a “garden boy.” The government set up roadblocks to prevent his movements. Newspapers began to write about the former high-profile freedom fighter, now a mysterious will-o’-the-wisp. They called him the “Black Pimpernel.” Meeting underground with other ANC members in hiding, Mandela counseled that violence was now in order. He formed a new military organization, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), known as the MK, to fight the government. He and his men trained as soldiers in Ethiopia. Then they began sabotaging South African transportation links, power plants and similar targets, taking the government completely by surprise.

“Historic enemies who had been fighting...three centuries met and shook hands.”

Before long, the South African police arrested Mandela for fomenting strikes and for leaving the country without the proper documents. Mandela defended himself at his 1962 trial, but did not contest the charges. Finding him guilty, the judge sentenced him to five years in prison with no parole. He was sent to Robben Island, where white jailers greeted him with, “This is the island. Here you will die.” Soon the authorities brought new charges, for sabotage, against Mandela and the other freedom fighters. The government produced 173 witnesses against them. People worldwide demonstrated on behalf of Mandela and his comrades, but in 1964 they were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

“I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another.”

Their cells were damp, cramped and unpleasant. Inside the walls, the “Coloureds” (mixed-race peoples) and the Indians received the best (though not good) food. Mandela and the other blacks received the worst. Meanwhile, the government became far more ruthless and oppressive. In May 1969, security forces detained Winnie Mandela. Without formal charges, they put her in solitary confinement and brutally interrogated her for months. In succession, she was released, placed under house arrest, confined in Kroonstad Prison and then forced into internal exile.

“Apartheid created a deep and lasting wound in my country and my people. All of us will spend many years, if not generations, recovering from that profound hurt.”

Mandela always had to be on guard in jail. Once he turned down a warden who offered to help him escape. Later, he learned that the man was with the Bureau of State Security. His plan was that Mandela would be “accidentally” killed during the escape. Over the years, many MK soldiers joined Mandela and other black leaders in jail. They were militant and often openly rebellious toward the guards. They called Robben Island “the university,” because there they learned from each other about the black struggle for freedom.

“I am told that when ‘Free Mandela’ posters went up in London, most young people thought my Christian name was Free.”

In 1976, blacks throughout South Africa began huge mass protests. Many fought with the security forces. In June, the police massacred schoolchildren demonstrating in Soweto. This slaughter caused outrage nationally and globally. By now, the MK had moved from sabotage to other forms of violence, including car bombs. Mandela regretted the upsurge in violence and the deaths it caused. But, he said, “The armed struggle was imposed upon us by the violence of the apartheid regime.” In 1982, the authorities transferred Mandela and three other political prisoners from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison near Cape Town.

Time for a New South Africa

More black South Africans than ever before joined the fight for freedom. New militant groups formed. The ANC’s popularity increased. The townships were in an uproar. Violence escalated. In 1985, the government offered to free Mandela if he renounced violence. Though he refused, he now believed it was time to negotiate with the Nationalists. As the de facto leader of the freedom movement, he met first with a special committee of Nationalist officials. Their initial topic was the armed struggle. The Nationalists said violence against the state was criminal. Mandela said the state “was responsible for the violence” and that the oppressor, not the oppressed, always “dictates the form of the struggle.”

In July 1989, Mandela met with South African President P.W. Botha, known as die Groot Krokodil (“the Great Crocodile”). About a month later, Botha resigned and F.W. de Klerk became acting president. In early 1990, de Klerk freed Mandela and seven of his comrades. Mandela had been imprisoned for 27 years. De Klerk also began to dismantle apartheid. In December, the two men met. The push for black freedom suddenly moved with startling speed. But South Africans, white and black, had many bridges to cross to end the violence and begin reconciliation.

One roadblock was Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party, who had a different vision for South Africa than the ANC. Inkatha fighters began to battle ANC members across South Africa. That set a bloody context for Mandela and de Klerk to begin negotiations. When the Nationalists lifted their state-of-emergency decree, the ANC agreed to “suspend the armed struggle” against the apartheid government. However, violence between Inkatha and the ANC continued. In July 1991, Mandela was elected president of the ANC.

The Convention for a Democratic South Africa later began formal negotiations with the government, a move supported by 69% of white South Africans. The negotiations were rocky. Violence remained rife. In 1993, the ANC and de Klerk’s administration announced plans for a “government of national unity,” calling for South Africa to hold its first truly democratic election the next year. For their efforts, Mandela and de Klerk received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. In April 1994, the ANC won 62.6% of the vote. Shortly thereafter, Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. He served until 1999.

Work remains to be done. Mandela has not achieved his full original goal, “to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor,” though his country has taken bold steps forward. For now, He says, “We have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.”

About the Author

After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

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    L. C. 2 years ago
    This quote inspires my daily labor. "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world" As you might have guessed I am teacher and I'm proud to be part of this wondrous thought.
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    A. M. 2 years ago
    This helped me do my LIFE SKILLS PROJECT
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    S. K. 3 years ago
    The summary omits to mention that Mandela and others were found with plans to plant explosives and blow up Johannesburg Station; this lead to his conviction and imprisonment.