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Book Summary: Long Walk to Freedom – The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was more than a political prisoner and beloved president. He was also a conflicted activist, a barrier-breaking lawyer, and a grieving father. In this book review, you’ll learn how a boy born into an illiterate village grew up to be a galvanizing leader and national hero. You’ll also explore South African history through the lense of Mandela’s life, including the hardships and eventual deconstruction of apartheid.

Learn about the personal hardships and triumphs of the first black president of South Africa.


  • Are interested in the complex political history of South Africa
  • Want to know more about the life of Nelson Mandela
  • Are curious about South African apartheid and how it came to an end

Book Summary: Long Walk to Freedom - The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

If asked to name the greatest icon of recent times, who would we pick? It’s a fair bet that many would choose Nelson Mandela. A man who suffered at the hands of an extremely unjust society, he refused to break, and instead kept fighting, kept pushing for justice and, after decades of punishment, won.

But what led Mandela to develop such strength and conviction? This book summary take you on a journey through Mandela’s life, showing the events that made the man.

In this summary of Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, you’ll discover

  • why Mandela had to turn to violence in the face of state brutality;
  • why Mandela turned against many of his supporters and talked to his arch enemy; and
  • how Mandela got his prison guards to support him against the government.

Note: The following book summary contain strong, offensive language. A racist term is used in a translation of a popular political party during Apartheid and reflects Mandela’s experience of racism and discrimination in South Africa at the time.


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. We recommend 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.


Nelson Mandela is known for many achievements and roles: a heroic political prisoner, an iconic leader, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first democratically elected president of South Africa. However, Mandela’s life is more than a series of impressive milestones. He was also a father, husband, conflicted organizer, and forgiving soul.

Mandela notes that there was no one moment in his life when he decided to become political. For those who are oppressed, simple acts — like riding a segregated bus, earning lower wages, and struggling to raise a family — are inherently political acts. There’s no distinction between the personal and the political when attempting to live life even on its simplest terms is in itself an act of rebellion. For Mandela, that rebellion began in a tiny village in 1918.

Part 1: Childhood

In the year of the World War I armistice and the deadly worldwide outbreak of influenza, Nelson Mandela was born in the Transkei, a rural region of southeastern South Africa. His father was an adviser to the acting king of the Thembu tribe, and because of his status, Mandela’s father enjoyed considerable wealth and prestige. He was a highly respected member of the community, and he had the resources to support his four wives and 13 children.

However, shortly after Mandela’s birth, his father suffered from a political conflict with a white magistrate, and he was charged with insubordination and stripped of his title. Consequently, Mandela’s family fell on hard times. Nevertheless, young Nelson enjoyed a happy childhood in a village where few people knew how to read or write. He spent his days herding cattle and using sticks to fence with other boys.

When friends of his mother suggested that Mandela attend school, his father agreed. In preparing for his first day, Mandela recalls that he didn’t have any proper clothing to wear. It was customary for boys in the village to wear only draped blankets, but this attire was not acceptable for school settings. Mandela’s father took one of his own pairs of pants, cut them at the knee, and gave them to his son. Nelson used a rope to tighten the comically oversized waist and wore them with pride on his first day.

When Mandela was 12, his family faced new levels of destitution due to the death of his father. Another local tribal leader, who’d been a friend of Mandela’s father, offered to take young Mandela under his wing, so young Nelson moved to a slightly more prosperous town and continued his schooling. He planned to become a civil servant, which was a lofty ambition for an African teenager living in a culture governed by a white minority.

Mandela’s new home gave him the opportunity to observe official tribal meetings between his surrogate father and his coterie of advisers and judges. Mandela watched how his caretaker conducted his meetings, gave every man a chance to speak, and made decisions through consensus rather than majority rule. This style of leadership made an impression on Mandela and stayed with him into adulthood.

Part 2: Johannesburg

As a young man, Mandela dreamed of attaining his bachelor’s degree so that he could take proper care of his mother and lift her from poverty. However, just before Mandela graduated from university, he was suspended from school because he refused to halt a student protest he was leading. Then, shortly after his suspension, Mandela ran away from home to avoid an arranged marriage.

Mandela fled his quiet village life and sought refuge in the bustling city of Johannesburg. After a few failed attempts to secure employment, he began working as a clerk at a liberal law firm led by those who were sympathetic to the Communist Party and the African National Congress (ANC). Through his work at the law firm, Mandela encountered radical new ideas about Communist ideology, South Africa’s racial struggle, and the importance of political activism. He also became increasingly involved in the ANC.

The early 1940s were a time of hope for Mandela and the ANC. In 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, affirming the value of human dignity and the universality of democratic principles. The Allied effort emboldened the ANC to create its own charter, known as the African Claims, which demanded full citizenship for Africans, the right to buy land, and the repeal of discrimination laws.

However, the hopes of the ANC were met with backlash. In 1948, the national elections (which only permitted whites to vote) led to the defeat of the ruling United Party. In its place, white voters elected the National Party, which had refused to support Great Britain during World War II and had shown brazen sympathy for the Nazis. The Nationalist victory was the beginning of a more radicalized racial oppression in South Africa. Discrimination reached a new level. The Nationalist government criminalized marriage and sexual relations between whites and nonwhites, and they passed the Population Registration Act, under which all South Africans were categorized primarily by race.

Finally, the Nationalist government introduced legislation that was at the very heart of apartheid: forced residential segregation according to race. Under the Group Areas Act, every racial group was confined to its own respective area.

However, if ruling whites decided that one particular region was desirable, they could declare that it was a white territory, kick out the African residents, and take over. Thus, the Group Areas Act legalized the forced eviction of Africans and other racial minorities and resulted in the outright destruction of entire African towns.

Part 3: Political Stirrings

In wake of the Nationalist victory and its legalized intensification of racial discrimination, Mandela and the ANC became increasingly active. While the ANC’s protest efforts had always been within the law, they began launching a landmark civil disobedience movement that called for boycotts, strikes, and protest demonstrations. Mandela, who helped form the ANC Youth League, was one of the movement’s leaders. It was a busy time for him, especially after he married and became a father of two.

In 1952, Mandela was one of the leaders of the Defiance Campaign, which was a joint effort of civil disobedience between ANC and the South African Indian Congress. As a reaction against the residential segregation of the Group Areas Act, the Defiance Campaign involved two stages: the occupation of white-only neighborhoods and large-scale strikes nationwide. The Nationalist government felt the pressure of the Defiance Campaign, and its leaders were unnerved by the growing collaboration between Africans and Indians. Parliament responded by passing the Public Safety Act, which allowed the government to use martial law and detain individuals without trial.

Though the Defiance Campaign failed to overturn any legislation, it was a galvanizing moment for the ANC. Prior to this campaign, the ANC had generated more political rhetoric than action. After the campaign, the ANC’s membership grew to 100,000, and it became a true mass movement. Political imprisonment was no longer a source of stigma. Instead, it became a normalized occurrence and even a source of pride for its members.

As Mandela’s political activity increased, he experienced greater ramifications. Over the course of several years, he experienced multiple arrests and bans, which restricted his movements to certain cities and even prevented him from traveling regularly to see his mother. Nevertheless, Mandela continued his political work. After he completed his BA and a law diploma, Mandela and his colleague Oliver Tambo opened the first black law firm in South Africa. Other firms served clients of every race, but even the more liberal lawyers charged exorbitant fees for their black clients. Mandela & Tambo was the first firm to charge fair rates to their African clients.

Part 4: Treason and Imprisonment

The 1950s were a turbulent time for Mandela’s political work. After nonviolent action failed to prevent the forced eviction and destruction of Sophiatown, one of the most vibrant African communities, Mandela concluded that nonviolence was inadequate for dealing with government oppression. This was the beginning of great internal debate within the ANC. Some argued that nonviolence was the only ethical option, but others, like Mandela, argued that nonviolence was only worth practicing if it was the most efficient path.

In decades past, Mandela advocated for nonviolence precisely because of its efficacy. However, in light of its shortcomings, Mandela became open to the possibility of violence as a political tactic. He advocated for the abandonment of nonviolence, and eventually, the ANC adopted Mandela’s position. This was a radical departure for the party: For five decades, nonviolence had been one of the ANC’s guiding principles. Now, the organization was embarking on a risky path, and Mandela, who’d never even fired a gun, was charged with the task of starting an army.

Amid this internal ANC debate, Mandela’s marriage suffered. His wife, Evelyn, struggled with the fact that Mandela gave more of his time and energy to his political activism than to his family. She forced Mandela to choose between her and the ANC. Mandela chose the ANC, and he and his wife divorced in 1956. That same year, Mandela was arrested and charged with treason, along with dozens of other activists. His trial was lengthy, and he wasn’t acquitted until 1961. Because of this, his legal practice suffered, and he found himself in financial trouble.

In 1958, Mandela married his second wife, Winnie, who was a social worker. In the early 1960s, the police issued a warrant for Mandela’s arrest and he spent roughly two years in hiding. While he had publicly stated that he’d never leave South Africa or abandon the cause, he secretly left the country and traveled to London, Morocco, and Ethiopia, where he learned more about how to organize a militia and use violence in an effective way. Mandela chose to focus the ANC’s efforts on acts of sabotage, rather than guerilla warfare, terrorism, or violent demonstrations. He felt that sabotage would be the most effective — and least deadly — option.

In 1962, Mandela was finally caught by the authorities and charged with illegally leaving the country. While he was serving this sentence, he was also charged with sabotage. In 1963, Mandela and 10 of his co-conspirators were put to trial. This was the famous Rivonia Trial, which concluded in 1964 when all defendants were sentenced to life in prison. After the conviction, Mandela and his fellow inmates were transported from Pretoria to Robben Island, a remote prison off the coast near Cape Town. During their transport, a sympathetic lieutenant assured them that they’d be released in a few years, an estimate that turned out to be wildly inaccurate.

Life at Robben Island was initially unbearable. Inmates were not allowed clocks, so it was easy to lose track of time. Mandela observed that the inability to mark time was the beginning of insanity, so he quickly tried to make his own calendar. He and his fellow inmates spent their days doing hard labor, which consisted of breaking boulders into gravel. After a few months of breaking boulders, Mandela was reassigned to a lime quarry. He was told that he would only be mining for six months, and afterward, he would receive easier tasks. But Mandela ended up working in the quarry for another 13 years.

Mandela was classified as a “D” level prisoner, which meant he had significantly fewer privileges than other inmates. He was only allowed to meet with one visitor and send one letter every six months. Furthermore, the logistics of these prison visits were especially tricky for visitors. Family members weren’t allowed to schedule an exact date for their visit. Instead, families would receive a random phone call from a prison official informing them that their loved one would be available for a visit on the following day. Mandela was lucky because his wife, Winnie, was able to deal with the inconvenience and make those last-minute visits happen.

Mandela’s family also suffered greatly during these times. Winnie was imprisoned on multiple occasions for her continued political activism. Then, one of Mandela’s sons died in a car accident at the age of 25, and Mandela was again haunted by a sense of guilt that he’d neglected his family in favor of his political calling.

While the first half of Mandela’s sentence was marked by isolation and hard labor, the later years brought some improvements. After a few years, the prison guards relaxed and allowed Mandela and his fellow inmates to speak to each other while working in the quarry. In 1977, Mandela’s manual labor was finally suspended, and he and his conspirators were even allowed to have board games and cards to pass the time. Mandela was eventually granted permission to keep photographs, and he started a small garden in the prison courtyard. Mandela also spent a great deal of time providing legal counsel to fellow inmates. During that time, South Africans didn’t have a right to legal representation, and poorer inmates couldn’t afford lawyers. Mandela would receive contraband letters from his fellow inmates and send them advice about what they should do for their cases.

In the later years, Mandela also saw more of his family. In 1984, he was finally allowed to have contact visits with his wife. He touched her hand for the first time in 21 years. After his daughter married into a royal family, she had the necessary diplomatic privileges to visit Mandela in prison and introduce him to his grandchild.

Part 5: Freedom

After decades of violence between the ANC and the Nationalist government, apartheid began to truly disintegrate. In 1989, the new president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, declared that apartheid was an unsustainable policy. He met with Mandela in prison, and the two men created an agreement that legalized all previously banned political parties, like the ANC, and gave Mandela an unconditional release.

The following years were still turbulent ones for South Africa. Violence continued even as the country deconstructed apartheid legislation. However, South Africa finally had a truly democratic election in 1994, in which citizens of all races were allowed to vote. Mandela was elected president. After one term, he stepped down as president and continued his political advocacy work via the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

Mandela’s marriage to Winnie ended in 1996. He observed that Winnie had been in a precarious position, for she’d married a man who was quickly taken from her. They spent the bulk of their marriage apart, and in that time, Mandela became a legend. Mandela wondered if, upon his release, Winnie struggled to accept that the legend was really just a man all along. Whatever the cause of their divorce, Mandela publicly announced his continued support and respect for Winnie. He later married for a third time in 2000.

Mandela died in Johannesburg in 2013.

Nelson Mandela’s interest in social justice began during his childhood in rural South Africa.

Nelson Mandela hardly needs an introduction. His life story is a classic tale of one man’s struggle against oppression, and we’ll certainly be telling it for years to come.

Mandela was born in 1918, in Mvezo, a small village in the South African countryside. He belonged to the Xhosa tribe, a proud ethnic group that highly valued law, courtesy and education. At birth, he was named Rolihlahla, which means “trouble maker” in the Xhosa language.

Mandela’s father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a chief in the tribe, a distinction that traditionally would have endowed him with high social status in the community. The British influence, however, had weakened the authority of tribal chiefs, so the position carried little political clout at the time.

Additionally, the British could oust anyone who threatened their authority, because each chief had to be ratified by the government. Mandela’s father was very headstrong and often challenged them, and it wasn’t long before the British revoked his status as chief.

When Mandela’s father died, another regent of the tribe, Jongintaba, offered to become Mandela’s guardian. This would end up having a huge impact on his life.

As a child, Mandela often attended tribal meetings at the regent’s court, where he learned about the plight of his people. One of the most prominent figures there was Chief Joyi, an elderly chief with royal lineage who railed against white supremacy.

Chief Joyi taught that the surrounding tribes had lived peacefully until white Europeans arrived and sowed the seeds of conflict. The white man, he said, was greedy and stole land that should’ve been shared, shattering the tribes’ unity.

Later in his life, Mandela would learn that Chief Joyi’s history lessons hadn’t always been correct. Nonetheless, they influenced his life dramatically: they opened his eyes to social injustice.

Mandela first began challenging authority as a student at Fort Hare.

The young Mandela was fond of physical activities like stick fighting, but he was an introvert as well. He was also the first person in his family to go to school, where his lifelong commitment to learning and education began.

The village school Mandela attended was entirely British. The students learned exclusively about British history, culture and institutions; African culture was simply never mentioned in the classroom. Mandela therefore learned the history of his own people from the elders in the regent’s court.

At the time, it was standard for Africans to have an anglicized name in addition to their regular one. Miss Mdigane, Mandela’s teacher, chose Mandela’s for him: Nelson. Mandela never learned the reason for her choice, but suspected it could’ve been connected to the great British sea captain Lord Nelson.

Mandela studied very diligently. So much so that he ended up completing his junior certificate at Healdtown College in two years rather than three. Then, in 1937, he moved to Fort Hare College, where he studied English, anthropology, politics, native administration and law.

It was also at Fort Hare that he began challenging authority. One night, Mandela and some of his fellow students started discussing the lack of freshmen representation in the House Committee, and they decided to elect their own House Committee that better addressed their interests.

Mandela and his friends caucused among the freshmen and garnered massive support. They then told the warden that if he overruled them, they’d resign, which would cause their freshmen supporters great displeasure.

In the end, they succeeded: the warden allowed the Committee to stand. The following year, however, things didn’t go so well.

In his second year, Mandela strongly supported a student boycott and ended up getting expelled for it. Finished with his time at Fort Hare, he decided to move to Johannesburg and get a job.

Mandela’s political work began in Johannesburg.

Johannesburg was a bustling city when Mandela arrived in 1941. He didn’t know it at the time, but in Johannesburg he’d make lifelong friends who’d fight against oppression with him.

Mandela first took a job as a night watchman in a gold mine. To him, the gold mine was a powerful symbol of white oppression – thousands of Africans slaving away every day, in a massive capitalist enterprise that only benefited the white owners.

His true goal was to become a lawyer, however. One day, one of Mandela’s cousins offered to take him to someone who could help, Walter Sisulu.

Sisulu ran a real estate agency that specialized in providing housing for Africans. He and Mandela would go on to become very close and the pair would face many hardships together.

Sisulu managed to get Mandela a position as a clerk in one of Johannesburg’s largest law firms, where he worked while studying for a BA in law at the University of South Africa.

One of Mandela’s colleagues, Gaur Radebe, the only other black employee at the firm, was a prominent member of the African National Congress, or ANC.

The ANC was founded in 1912, making it the oldest African national organization in the country. It aimed to secure full citizenship for all Africans in South Africa.

Gaur believed the ANC was the best hope for change in the country, and, soon enough, Mandela began attending ANC meetings with him.

Mandela got his first taste of real political activism in 1943, during a bus boycott that protested the rising bus fares. Mandela became an active participant in the boycott – not just an observer. Marching alongside his people was exhilarating and empowering.

In his nascent political life, Mandela also befriended a number of other activists, like Tony O’Dowd, Harold Wolpe and various members of the Communist Party. These connections would prove vital in his later struggle against apartheid.

The National Party’s rise to power saw the beginning of apartheid.

Walter Sisulu’s home in Johannesburg became a hotspot for ANC members and African intellectuals. One of the people who frequented the house was Anton Lembebe, a prominent lawyer who’d have a big impact on Mandela.

Lembebe argued that Africa rightfully belonged to black people. He called on African men from all tribes to unite and assert their right to the land.

Reclaiming the land would do away with the Western standards and ideals that had caused many Africans to internalize deep feelings of shame about their culture – essentially curing a culture-wide inferiority complex.

Mandela, Sisulu, Lembede and a few others eventually went to see Dr. Xuma, the head of the ANC at the time. They suggested the ANC build a Youth League to gather support, as the organization was still somewhat small. Dr. Xuma was initially hesitant because he thought the African masses couldn’t be organized, but, in 1944, he agreed to form the Youth League.

And then, in 1948, something shocking happened: Dr. Daniel Malan’s National Party won the general election.

The National Party had run on a political campaign called apartheid, which means “apartness” in Afrikaans. They’d won the election using extremely racist slogans like Die kaffer op sy plek – “The nigger in his place.” As soon as Malan came to power, he began implementing a series of acts that put apartheid into practice.

One of the first was the Group Areas Act, which stipulated that different racial groups had to stay in strictly separated areas. The Youth League fought back, organizing a National Day of Protest, where they urged all African workers to stay home.

The National Day of Protest took place on June 26th, 1950. It was a success, strengthening both the movement and Mandela’s commitment to the struggle.

Thanks to the protest and the Defiance Campaign, a similar political move, the number of ANC members swelled to 100,000 in just one year.

As the National Party’s tactics became harsher, Mandela saw the necessity of violence.

The National Day of Protest strengthened the ANC, but it also illustrated the power of the National Party, which only intensified its efforts to squash resistance.

After the protest, the National Party passed the Suppression of Communism Act. They then used it to go after Mandela.

On June 30th, 1950, Mandela was arrested for violating the act. Because of the role he’d played in planning and executing the previous year’s protests, the government had been after him for a while.

Massive demonstrations took place on the streets of Johannesburg when Mandela and the others accused along with him first appeared in court. On December 2nd of the same year, they were all found guilty of “statutory communism” and sentenced to nine months in prison. The sentence was suspended for two years, however, allowing Mandela to continue his work.

In August of 1952, Mandela started his own law firm. It focused on helping Africans, many of whom were now in desperate need of legal help. It had become illegal for Africans to ride on Whites Only buses, drink from Whites Only fountains or even walk through Whites Only doors.

When he appeared in court, Mandela made a point of being defiant. In one trial, for example, he managed to free a client by embarrassing her white employer.

The employer had accused her black maid of stealing her “madam’s” clothes. So Mandela picked up a piece of the evidence – a pair of her panties. He held them up to the court then asked if they were hers. Embarrassed, she said no, and the case was later dismissed.

As the situation worsened, Mandela and Sisulu came to believe that the National Party’s increasingly harsher laws could only be met with violence. Sisulu tried to secretly travel to China to ask the government if they’d provide them with weapons, but the ANC leadership soon found out, which led to a heated debate on the use of violence in the ANC.

The government went after Mandela and the other ANC leaders as the situation grew worse.

Mandela was arrested at his house on December 5th, 1956. The warrant for his arrest accused him of hoogverraad, the Afrikaans term for High Treason. He’d long expected the government to make a bigger move against the ANC, and now it had finally arrived.

The government claimed they had evidence that Mandela had planned violent acts in the Defiance Campaign. They also arrested nearly all of the Campaign’s other leaders.

It was clear from the start that the prosecution’s case was weak. The star witness was Solomon Ngubase, a man who was serving a sentence for fraud. He claimed he’d attended an ANC meeting where the leaders had decided to send Walter Sisulu to the Soviet Union to acquire weapons for an armed struggle.

During Ngubase’s cross-examination, the defense established that he was neither a member of the ANC nor a university graduate, as he’d claimed. This was a serious blow to the prosecution.

As the court case dragged on, the struggle raged outside. The severity of the situation really hit home on March 26th, 1960, when a tragedy occurred in the town of Sharpeville.

There, thousands of Africans had gathered around a local police station, demonstrating against the “pass laws,” which required all Africans to carry pass books when they left their designated neighborhood. The police panicked and opened fire on the crowd without warning. At least 69 people were killed, most of whom were shot in the back as they tried to flee.

Over 50,000 people gathered in Cape Town to protest the shootings. Riots broke out and the government declared a State of Emergency, suspending habeas corpus.

The court case took a better turn, however. Although the state had provided thousands of pages of material, the judge ruled that the evidence of a violent plot was insufficient and all the accused were acquitted.

After the trial, the ANC’s struggle moved underground and Mandela created the MK.

While Mandela and his friends were in prison awaiting trial, they decided it was time to move things underground.

Mandela knew there was no time for celebration after his release; the ANC had to fight back quickly and they needed to change their tactics.

The violence debate within the ANC had already been going on for a few years. In a secret executive meeting, in 1961, Mandela argued that the state had left the ANC no other option.

But the ANC leadership decided the party would maintain an official policy of non-violence; Mandela, however, could create a militant organization within it. The new, militant wing of the ANC was dubbed Umkhonto we Siswe, meaning “The Spear of the Nation.” It was called the MK for short.

The MK started by using sabotage. Mandela had never fired a gun at someone in his life, but began studying all he could about guerrilla warfare, sabotage and revolution.

He also moved to the Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, a small suburb of Johannesburg that had been purchased by the movement. Liliesleaf Farm served as a safe house and training ground for the MK, and it was there that Mandela practiced his shooting and learned to use explosives.

He and the other MK members agreed to use sabotage first, as it had the lowest chance of injury and required less manpower. So in December of 1960, they detonated homemade bombs at a number of government buildings and power stations in Johannesburg. They also began circulating a manifesto declaring the MK’s arrival.

The explosions came as a surprise to the government, which, plotting reprisal, redoubled its efforts as well.

The government persecuted Mandela as the struggle grew more intense.

By this point the government was willing to do anything to catch Mandela, who’d become an iconic figure in the movement.

They finally captured him on August 5th, 1962, when he was on his way back to Liliesleaf Farm after a secret MK meeting. He was then taken to prison, where he was joined by Sisulu, who’d also been arrested.

On Mandela’s first day in court, he, his wife and many of the spectators wore leopard-skin karosses, traditional Xhosa garb. In his first address, he stated that he intended to put the government on trial and he didn’t feel morally bound by the laws, as they were passed by a parliament he couldn’t vote for.

He then recounted several instances where the government had rejected the ANC’s attempts to settle their issues through official means. The ANC saw no other option but violence.

The prosecution’s main piece of evidence was a six-page action plan taken from Liliesleaf Farm that implicated Mandela and the others for their planning of the MK. The document made it clear they’d be found guilty.

The trial garnered a great deal of international attention and excerpts from the speech Mandela gave on the day of the verdict were published in many newspapers. Vigils were held in cities all over the world.

On June 12th, 1964, Mandela was found guilty of all charges, but international pressure on South Africa helped save his life. A group of UN experts, for example, advised that amnesty be granted to everyone who opposed apartheid. The charges against Mandela would’ve usually carried the death penalty, but, instead, his final sentence was life in prison.

Mandela and his fellow prisoners kept up their resistance in prison.

After the trial, Mandela was taken to Robben Island, where he’d spend the next 20 years of his life.

Everyday life was very grim on Robben Island. Volleyball-sized stones were dumped into the prison courtyard each day and the prisoners had to crush them into gravel with small hammers. The weather was scorching hot.

Mandela belonged to the class of prisoners that were kept under the strictest control. He was only allowed one visitor and one letter every six months. His correspondence was heavily censored, too; he could barely read the letters he received from Winnie, his wife.

The worst part of prison was solitary confinement, which prisoners could be given for the smallest infractions. Just failing to stand up in your cell when a guard entered was enough.

The prison was designed to break them emotionally, so they kept up the spirit of resistance to make it through their days. When all prisoners except Indians were given shorts to wear, Mandela demanded to see the warden of the prison, as he felt it was indecent for an African man to wear shorts.

After two weeks of protest, the guards gave in. The victory was small but important nonetheless.

The prisoners faced many other challenges as well. It was difficult for them to get books and magazines, and anything related to politics or news was strictly forbidden.

Fortunately, the guards weren’t especially bright. One prisoner managed to get a copy of The Economist because the guards assumed it was about economics.

Then, in 1966, the prisoners decided to go on a hunger strike to protest the prison’s living conditions. Eventually, the guards joined them. The prison authorities realized the strike was too much for the prison, so they agreed to the prisoners’ demands. Rebellion had proved contagious.

Mandela and his fellow African freedom fighters had wide support from the international community, which pressured the South African government.

The guards at Robben Island gradually became less strict with the prisoners as time went on, but the situation outside only worsened. There were also signs of hope, however. The 1970s saw an increase in mass protests around Africa and a new, more militant generation of freedom fighters began to emerge.

Mandela and the other prisoners had limited access to the news, but they managed to get word of an uprising in 1976.

In June of that year, fifteen thousand schoolchildren in Soweto, an urban area of Johannesburg, had gathered to protest legislation requiring schools to teach half of their courses in Afrikaans, a language most African children didn’t want to learn.

Once again, the police opened fire on the crowd without warning, killing Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old, along with many others. Two white men were also stoned to death. The events triggered riots and protests throughout the country.

Many in the new generation of South African freedom fighters were more aggressive and militant. Those who were convicted and sent to Robben Island viewed Mandela and the other Rivonia prisoners as moderates.

Many of the young freedom fighters were part of the Black Consciousness Movement. They believed the black man had to free himself from his sense of inferiority to whites in order to free himself from oppression. Mandela admired their militancy but thought their exclusive focus on blackness was immature.

The South African uprisings in the late 1970s were covered extensively by the international media, and people worldwide grew more enraged about apartheid. “Free Mandela” campaigns and events were popping up all over the world.

In 1980, the Johannesburg Saturday Post ran a story with the headline FREE MANDELA, including a petition the readers could sign. The article sparked a national debate on Mandela’s release.

The South African government and freedom fighters finally began to negotiate when they both accepted that the violence was too much.

By the early 1980s, the struggle was only getting bloodier. Where would it end? The violence seemed to be spiraling out of control, pulling society down with it. Something had to be done.

In 1981, the South African Defense Force raided the ANC’s offices in Maputo, Mozambique, killing thirteen people. The MK, who’d become more violent by that point, retaliated. In May, 1983, they detonated a car bomb outside a military facility in Pretoria as revenge, killing nineteen people.

Mandela realized that, without negotiations, the situation would only get more chaotic. The ANC had maintained that they wouldn’t negotiate with the racist government, but Mandela started to realize it was necessary.

After the government again declared a State of Emergency, in 1986, Mandela requested a meeting with Kobie Coetsee, the Minister of Defense. Surprisingly, the request was granted and he was taken to the minister’s private home in Cape Town.

Coetsee asked Mandela what it would take to keep the ANC from using violent tactics. This was the first step in negotiations.

Then, in May of 1988, Mandela and a committee of state officials began holding a series of secret meetings. In December of the following year, Mandela met with the new president, F. W. de Klerk. de Klerk was committed to fostering peace and listened carefully to what Mandela had to say.

In February, 1990, de Klerk announced that he would lift the ban on the ANC, which was still technically an illegal organization (that had widespread support through the country). He also agreed to release all political prisoners that had been put in jail for nonviolent activities. The same day, de Klerk met with Mandela and told him he’d be released.

Mandela was released in 1990, received the Nobel Peace Prize and continued his political work.

Nelson Mandela was released on February 11th, 1990. For South African people, however, freedom was still a long way off.

Mandela had been held in a low-security prison outside Cape Town since 1988. He had his own living space there, which served as a kind of halfway house between freedom and prison.

On the day of his release, Mandela was supposed to be taken from the house to the front gate by car, but a television presenter asked him to walk the last part of it. As he made his way toward the gate with his wife by his side, he raised his fist and the crowd shouted.

Later that day, he gave a speech from a City Hall balcony, before a massive crowd. He shouted out “Amandla,” which is Xhosa for “power,” and the crowd shouted back “Ngawethu,” meaning “to us.”

The following afternoon, Mandela told reporters that he’d do anything the ANC saw fit. He saw no conflict of interest between supporting ANC’s militant struggle and moving forward with negotiations. The ANC would respond to peace with peace.

The relationship between the government and ANC was still tense, however. In December of 1992, the ANC executives decided to engage in a series of secret bilateral talks with the government. In the first, it was decided that all parties that earned over five percent in the general election should have proportional representation in the cabinet. That meant the ANC would have to work alongside the National Party, which provoked controversy within the ANC.

On April 27th, 1994, the first non-racialized election took place in South Africa. The ANC earned 62.6 percent of the votes. Shortly before that, Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


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.”


Nelson Mandela led a challenging life. From poverty and loss during childhood to the sacrifices of political activism, he endured unimaginable challenges. He also struggled as a leader, torn between the appeal of peaceful civil disobedience and the apparent necessity for violent action.

Throughout his life, Mandela experienced a certain amount of guilt over the impact of his political commitments. He wondered if it was truly ethical to deprive his family of attention and care for the sake of his mission.

Despite his many challenges, Mandela nurtured an undying commitment to racial equality and justice. He refused to hate his white oppressors, and he recognized that bigotry harms its victims, as well as the ones who wield it. He chose forgiveness so that hatred would not steal more of his life. His story is an example of the true power of a commitment to justice.

Nelson Mandela devoted his life to the ideals he believed in. Though he and his people faced great challenges, persecution and violence, Mandela remained committed, even when he was held in prison. His work and dedication led to his becoming the torchbearer of the anti-apartheid movement, and the man who paved the way for a free and democratic South Africa.

About the author

Nelson Mandela was the first African president of South Africa, as well as the country’s first democratically elected president. He spent 27 years in prison for his political activism, and he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

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


Political Biographies, Biography, History, Africa, Autobiography, Memoir, Politics, South Africa, Biography Memoir, Race

Table of Contents

Foreword President Bill Clinton ix
Part 1 A Country Childhood 1
Part 2 Johannesburg 61
Part 3 Birth of a Freedom Fighter 93
Part 4 The Struggle is My Life 141
Part 5 Treason 197
Part 6 The Black Pimpernel 263
Part 7 Rivonia 309
Part 8 Robben Island: The Dark Years 379
Part 9 Robben Island: Beginning to Hope 449
Part 10 Talking with the Enemy 511
Part 11 Freedom 559
Index 627


Nelson Mandela was one of the great moral and political leaders of his time: an international hero whose lifelong dedication to the fight against racial oppression in South Africa won him the Nobel Peace Prize and the presidency of his country. After his triumphant release in 1990 from more than a quarter-century of imprisonment, Mandela was at the center of the most compelling and inspiring political drama in the world. As president of the African National Congress and head of South Africa’s antiapartheid movement, he was instrumental in moving the nation toward multiracial government and majority rule. He is still revered everywhere as a vital force in the fight for human rights and racial equality.

Long Walk to Freedom is his moving and exhilarating autobiography, destined to take its place among the finest memoirs of history’s greatest figures. Here for the first time, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela told the extraordinary story of his life — an epic of struggle, setback, renewed hope, and ultimate triumph.

* * * * *

Nelson Mandela is one of the great moral and political leaders of our time: an international hero whose lifelong dedication to the fight against racial oppression in South Africa won him the Nobel Peace Prize and the presidency of his country. Since his triumphant release in 1990 from more than a quarter-century of imprisonment, Mandela has been at the center of the most compelling and inspiring political drama in the world. As president of the African National Congress and head of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, he was instrumental in moving the nation toward multiracial government and majority rule. He is revered everywhere as a vital force in the fight for human rights and racial equality. The foster son of a Thembu chief, Mandela was raised in the traditional, tribal culture of his ancestors, but at an early age learned the modern, inescapable reality of what came to be called apartheid, one of the most powerful and effective systems of oppression ever conceived. In classically elegant and engrossing prose, he tells of his early years as an impoverished student and law clerk in Johannesburg, of his slow political awakening, and of his pivotal role in the rebirth of a stagnant ANC and the formation of its Youth League in the 1950s. He describes the struggle to reconcile his political activity with his devotion to his family, the anguished breakup of his first marriage, and the painful separations from his children. He brings vividly to life the escalating political warfare in the fifties between the ANC and the government, culminating in his dramatic escapades as an underground leader and the notorious Rivonia Trial of 1964, at which he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Herecounts the surprisingly eventful twenty-seven years in prison and the complex, delicate negotiations that led both to his freedom and to the beginning of the end of apartheid. Finally he provides the ultimate inside account of the unforgettable events since his release that produced at last a free, multiracial democracy in South Africa. To millions of people around the world, Nelson Mandela stands, as no other living figure does, for the triumph of dignity and hope over despair and hatred, of self-discipline and love over persecution and evil.


“Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand history – and then go out and change it.” –President Barack Obama

The famously taciturn South African president reveals much of himself in Long Walk to Freedom. A good deal of this autobiography was written secretly while Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island by South Africa’s apartheid regime. Among the book’s interesting revelations is Mandela’s ambivalence toward his lifetime of devotion to public works. It cost him two marriages and kept him distant from a family life he might otherwise have cherished. Long Walk to Freedom also discloses a strong and generous spirit that refused to be broken under the most trying circumstances–a spirit in which just about everybody can find something to admire.

Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Mandela began his autobiography during the course of his 27 years in prison.

“Irresistible…One of the few political autobiographies that’s also a page-turner.”―Los Angeles Times Book Review

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