“Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela: Leadership, Apartheid, and Climate Activism

The Cover image of Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela's Autobiography Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is a stirring book. Autobiography already has something rich and intimate about it; in Long Walk to Freedom that is combined with the nobility and inspiration of a successful struggle against injustice. In reading it, I reflected upon a few things: leadership, apartheid, and climate activism.

Nelson Mandela is an amazing leader

What most caught my attention was Mandela’s leadership. The story demonstrates how he makes hard decisions, acts as a force for unity, and drives unrelentingly at what is right. Mandela is a moral authority, a role model for those of us who aspire to lead lives of greatness.

But this goes further again. Mandel’s writing itself is further evidence of his leadership. He is humble to a fault, emphasising the contribution of other figures, glossing over his public speeches to crowds of tens of thousands. So much so that the book leaves you wondering at times – why is this guy such a big deal again? To be frank, I was surprised when he got sentenced to life imprisonment, as the way the book is written it isn’t obvious that he had done much to warrant such a sentence! This humility of Mandela’s is pretty cool.

Further, I suspect autobiography is a genre that tempts the author towards putting their own spin on things. Yet, while Mandela presumably does so, the book feels deliberately even and fair. Even writing retrospectively, Mandela is kind to his opponents, owning his opinions and ensuring opponents’ critiques are conveyed. The writing is so honest, so neutral, it feels as much like a history as like a memoir.

And of course, it is: Long Walk to Freedom is a history of apartheid in South Africa and the resistance against it. Sad to say, apartheid is a crime against humanity the depravity of which I hadn’t grasped prior to reading this work. It’s just totally fucking horrid. Not only that, it is despicable that the international community took so long to smack it down, that atrocities like the Sharpeville massacre could happen and be known and that nothing was done. Now, I’m not a huge fan of interventions and there are lots of good reasons why I don’t make foreign policy, but it seems pretty shameful that Mandela might have to go and talk Prime Minister Thatcher out of cutting sanctions. Holy heck.

A picture of casualties of the Sharpeville Massacre, as described in Nelson Mandela's "Long walk to Freedom"

Casualties of the Sharpeville Massacre.

That’s another good thing that came out of this reading though: I’m a little less ignorant of what apartheid was like, what it felt like to live under it, what it meant to resist it. I’m a little more aware of what it means to truly be oppressed…and to truly sacrifice for a cause.

From a Long Walk to Freedom to a Race Against Time

As a climate campaigner I’m particularly interested in Mandela’s story. I think apartheid is in a league of its own, but the experience of building and being part of a movement is more broadly applicable. It’s thus illuminating for me to reflect on Mandela’s sacrifice and on how he views the part he played.

Mandela commits his life to the movement. He literally gives up decades of his life in accepting his imprisonment. He separates from his first, then his second wife. He risks persecution, destitution, even murder. His fate is interwoven with that of the ANC, he speaks of being bound “heart and soul.” He describes politics as his “lifework”: “an essential and fundamental part of my being.” Woah.

Not too long ago, I spoke with Kumi Naidoo, head of Greenpeace International, at an AYCC Training Camp. Kumi had been in South Africa campaigning against apartheid. His own brother was murdered by the Nationalist Government. And Kumi’s advice to us youth in the climate movement was to take a chill pill: to study, party, meet friends, have sex, basically to enjoy ourselves. “The cause doesn’t need you to give your lives”, he said, “but the rest of your lives.”

Kumi Naidoo is pictured with members of the australian youth climate coalition.

Kumi Naidoo pictured with AYCC crew, Canberra, mid-2011.

They were memorable words but I didn’t strongly agree at the time. Apartheid was a visceral reality far more direct than today’s climate disasters, yet the prospect of tipping points and runaway climate change make the threat of climate catastrophie far more terrifying. Is it much use if I campaign on climate change in fifteen years’ time? If scientists know what they’re on about the most important campaigning I do on climate change may be what I get done before I grow out of my twenties. Is there time to lay about? Change takes time, but this may be time we don’t have, and I don’t know the answer. But I’m glad for how Long Walk to Freedom developed my thinking around activism.

Nelson Mandela’s life story is enriching and moving. Mandela is an icon, a moral authority, a proven leader whose struggle against the evil of apartheid has lessons for us all. Truly we are blessed, those of us in democracies, for even though the crisis is urgent, and the stakes sky high, we at least not denied our humanity.

In Long Walk to Freedom we have an example of a movement that achieved great things. But the walk is not yet over. Mandela, the ANC, South Africans – they stood up to a great injustice and won. We must let their example inspire us to do the same.

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