I finally did it. I finished Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. It wasn’t a short hop for me either.
I’d be lying if I said it was an easy read. I usually fall in love with books readily and am also not typically discouraged by very thick specimen, but this one did test my willpower. It’s not that I have anything against Nelson Mandela. On the contrary, after reading his personal account I admire him all the more for what he has accomplished and how he kept his dignity throughout his long ordeal. And the story is fascinating. It’s just that the writing itself didn’t captivate me as much as that of other authors. His is a more or less mechanical writing style, the sentences aren’t always flowing that well, and there are a ton of details in there that felt like road blocks keeping me from getting on with the story.
Maybe I haven’t read enough autobiographies, maybe they all are very self-centered, just by their very nature, and maybe this is one of the better ones. I have to admit that I’m a much bigger fan of memoirs, since I care less about absolute accuracy and more about a good story, giving you a feeling for the times and places they are set in. What the book does do very well is highlight the roles of all the different people who Nelson Mandela came in contact with over the years. If you were part of the “struggle,” you would of course love to find your name mentioned in these pages, and it feels like Mandela was very careful to give everyone his due.
One thing I loved about this book is the humble tone it is written in. For all that he has been through, Nelson Mandela could very well come across as preachy or grandiose, but you will find nothing of the sort in these pages. He writes without self-pity, without embellishment, he freely admits mistakes he has made, and he never gloats. What you do learn from these pages is that he saw himself as a leader of his people from an early age, and constantly worked on improving his leadership skills, even during those long years on Robben Island. He also thought of himself as a pragmatist, always looking for ways how the struggle for freedom could be advanced, even if it meant abandoning a purist principle, like non-violence.
Most of all he always was a team player, putting the interests of what he calls his people first and foremost, and insisting on consulting the ANC leadership in vital matters, even when he was close to being released from prison and in secret talks with the government. It goes to his great credit that he saw as his people all South Africans, black, white, and everything in between.
All in all, Long Walk to Freedom is a very revealing book, so if you have the stamina and are a fast reader, you should give it a try. I’m really glad I read this one as I consider Nelson Mandela one of the truly great people that have walked this Earth.