Nelson Mandela, who died at 95 on Thursday after a long illness, was among the transformative figures of the 20th century. A moral leader who became a political leader, a prisoner of conscience turned secular saint, he also elegantly shaped and detailed his own story in the 1995 autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom," as well as in a 2011 compendium of his letters, interviews and other writings, "Conversations with Myself."
I once saw Mandela — at a ticker tape parade in his honor in 1990. It was a festive day, deep into those heady first months after his release from South Africa’s Victor Verster Prison, and with a friend from college I walked down to lower Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes. The sidewalks were packed — black, white, Latino, Asian, male, female, young and old. It was like a glimpse into the future, into the world we are now struggling to occupy, as if we were witnessing the very moment of transition, the changing of the guard.
This, of course, was what Mandela fought for, what he represented in both his life and his work. From the beginning, he understood and articulated that the struggle in which he was engaged was a human struggle as much as a nationalist one.
As he wrote of that New York visit in “Long Walk to Freedom”: “The following day I went up to Harlem, an area that had assumed legendary proportions in my mind since the 1950s when I watched young men in Soweto emulate the sharp fashions of Harlem dandies. Harlem, as my wife said, was the Soweto of America. I spoke to a great crowd at Yankee Stadium, telling them that an unbreakable umbilical cord connected black South Africans and black Americans, for we were together children of Africa. There was a kinship between the two, I said, that had been inspired by such great Americans as W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King, Jr. As a young man, I idolized the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, who took on not only his opponents in the ring but racists outside it.”
Stately, elegant, written with a politician’s assurance, “Long Walk to Freedom” is both autobiography and, in a very real way, a shaping of his legend, recounting his 27-year imprisonment in South Africa and his ascension to the presidency of that country just four years after his release.
Its provenance is fascinating; according to Verne Harris, Project Leader of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue, “Long Walk to Freedom” was conceived as the statement of a collective voice. “The original manuscript,” he explains, “was drafted on Robben Island by what Ahmed Kathrada — his longtime comrade, friend and fellow prisoner — describes as ‘an editorial board.’”
Harris’ assertion comes in his introduction to “Conversations With Myself,” which was “inspired most directly by Marcus Aurelius’s ‘Meditations’” and featured a foreword by Barack Obama, another transformational politician who owes Mandela an enormous debt.
The collection is, in many ways, a counterpoint to “Long Walk to Freedom,” an attempt to showcase Mandela as a person rather than a public figure, although it can’t quite pull that off.
But why should it? If at the center of “Long Walk to Freedom” is Mandela’s sense of commitment, his responsibility to a cause greater than himself, so too “Conversations With Myself” can’t help but reflect that larger focus, even when it is describing what Obama refers to as “mundane routines.”
My favorite passage comes from a 1975 letter to his then-wife, Winnie: “Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others — qualities which are within easy reach of every soul — are the foundation of one’s spiritual life. Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes.”
There’s an irony here, given how Winnie Mandela went on to behave in her husband’s name, but the idea, the underlying sensibility, resonates.
“I was not born with a hunger to be free,” Mandela writes in the closing pages of “Long Walk to Freedom.” “I was born free — free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars and ride the broad backs of slow-moving bulls. As long as I obeyed my father and abided by the customs of my tribe, I was not troubled by the laws of man or God.”
Such a faith — that freedom is not something to be bestowed, but something with which we are born — has motivated liberation movements and literature going back to Thomas Paine and “Common Sense.”
This is what Mandela, by his presence, meant to tell us that long ago afternoon in Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes, and it is the key lesson that even (or especially) now, his books, his writings, his example continue to affirm.