Everyone should read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography! In fact, you probably already have. But I’m a little late to the game and just did it, finally. Long Walk to Freedom is deeply inspiring. It’s the story of an unbelievably strong man who remained a freedom fighter in every aspect of his life, whether he was free or jailed, whether he was trying to dismantle apartheid or simply trying to get Robben Island’s prisoners access to reading materials. More than that, though, the book is a wonderful model for anyone fighting for a just cause against overwhelming odds. Mandela is a master at balancing long- and short-term goals, making smart compromises, and not letting emotion supersede tactics. Perhaps the most moving part of the whole book is Mandela’s willingness, in the end, to partner — in the service of the greater good — with the same people who stole almost everything of personal meaning from his life.
For these reasons, Mandela’s book has lessons far beyond the anti-apartheid movement. I can think of applications from the United States to the Middle East to China and Tibet. Luckily for us, he offers up many quotable passages that provide food for thought. Here are my seven favorite, with a note or two on how I think they have broader applications.
7. On violence
“A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a certain point, one can only fight fire with fire.”
This is interesting because I think Mandela’s peace-loving qualities are oftentimes confused with him being a pacifist, which he certainly is not. While it concerns me that this quote could be used to excuse needless violence in any resistance struggle — and Mandela only supported violence where it had a clear practical purpose, and then favored property destruction over harm to people — it’s also a reminder that maybe not every freedom movement can be won by Ghandi’s methods alone.
6. On newspapers
“Although I read a variety of newspapers from around the country, newspapers are only a poor shadow of reality; their information is important to a freedom fighter not because it reveals the truth, but because it discloses the biases and perceptions of both those who produce the paper and those who read it.”
While this is surely more relevant in a context of acute oppression like apartheid South Africa, it’s still a bitter truth for anyone — like me — who loves newspapers. The MSM oftentimes tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the subjects it covers. Thank goodness for Jon Stewart.
5. On the beauty of a stolen land
“From Durban I drove south along the coast past Port Shepstone and Port St. Johns, small and lovely colonial towns that dotted the shimmering beaches fronting the Indian Ocean. While mesmerized by the beauty of the area, I was constantly rebuked by the buildings and streets that bear the names of white imperialists who suppressed the very people whose names belonged there.”
I am sure there are American Indians, Tibetans, Palestinians, and many others who can relate to this one.
4. On the power of music
“The curious beauty of African music is that it uplifts even as it tells a sad tale. You may be poor, you may have only a ramshackle house, you may have lost your job, but that song gives you hope… [African music] can ignite the political resolve of those who might otherwise be indifferent to politics.”
Music is powerful, one reason I love it.
3. On the importance of majority rule
“Majority rule and internal peace are like the two sides of a single coin, and white South Africa simply has to accept that there will never be peace and stability in this country until the principle is fully applied.” – from a letter Mandela wrote to Pieter W. Botha, while still in prison.
What if this concept was true in Israel-Palestine, too?
2. On inequality
“A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones…”
Oh man, I wish this would be a phrase that Americans would fold into their concept of patriotism. It’s an axiom.
1. On the nature of freedom
“A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity…. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Word. Maybe it was this kind of thinking that gave Mandela the compassion to open his arms to communities who had mistreated him so badly.