Long read in humility

October 10, 2009


LWTF
“Long Walk to Freedom” was not an easy read. To begin with, 750 pages can be intimidating. However, once begun, it grows on you. It is not a page turner, it demands reflection and on the part of the reader. I realized that the best time to read the book is when the rest of the house is asleep. Peace and quiet still amount to something. Towards the end, you are left with a sense of accomplishment. The sense of having accompanied a great man on his life journey lingers long after the last page has been turned.

It is written with disarming honesty and does not fail to move, deeply and indelibly. Mandela says it as he sees it. Sophistication, which is often times used to make up for lack of depth, is conspicuously absent. The reader believes everything that Mandela has to say. Lack of perspective, which can be galling in autobiographies, is never felt. It is incredible that a man whose life has been almost completely and, to most of us, tragically, circumscribed by the inhuman regulations of apartheid, is able to recount his story without any rancor or bitterness. There are no villains in the book. Notwithstanding the atrocities committed during apartheid, the lay reader is not left with any vengeful feelings. I guess Mandela has seen enough of that in his life to not want to contribute further to its proliferation. More than once in the book, Mandela thoughtfully points out to readers how, even the most ardent enforcer of apartheid, if provided with an opportunity, exhibits his humane side.

There is no attempt to glamourise, romanticise or “sex up” the freedom struggle. It is narrated and explained in a very matter of fact and objective manner. Just another day in the office for Mr. Mandela. Except for the very end, the reader is left with no doubt that that the freedom struggle was directed by Chief Luthuli and Oliver Tambo. Mandela happened to have the baton in his hand when the freedom tape was breasted. Lest we forget, Mandela keeps reiterating that the organisation is much more than the sum total of its members. I think it is a tribute to Mandela’s charisma that he is equated with the freedom struggle in South Africa by the rest of the world.

After skimming through his early days in the Transkei region, references to his personal life in any great detail are minimal. The separations from his wives are handled with sensitivity and dignity. Even public figures have a private side which needs to be respected. There can be no doubt that he has defined himself and his life in the context of his role in the freedom struggle more than anything else. The mask does slip a few times during references to his mother’s and son’s passing away.

For all his commitment to consensual leadership, it were the times when he decided to strike a lonely path that obviously accelerated dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. This is left for the reader to understand. For a man who challenged and ultimately defeated centuries of oppression by the white race, his humility is humbling.

At a time when instant gratification rules the world, it is useful to be reminded that nothing of durable value was ever achieved overnight. In Mandela’s and the ANC’s case it has taken imprisonment of more than 25 years to achieve what he and the organisation set out to do. It is ironical that right now, the Nobel for Obama is being justified as being an “incentive” for him to work towards peace “prospectively”. I guess the day is not far when such perversions will be applied for awarding the Nobel peace to bin Laden.

The reader is gently reminded that there is greatness lurking inside each one of us. We are left wondering if Mandela can do it, why not anyone else. Greatness has not been more simplified.

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3 Responses to “Long read in humility”

  1. Ronak M Soni Says:

    Nice article, but have a problem with your conclusion; you ask ‘If Mandela can do it, why can’t we?’ Earlier, you talked about his charisma and how he wasn’t actually the (Gandhi-like) leader of their freedom movement, but only seemed to be because of his charisma. That last word is the answer to your question(I appreciate the spirit in which it is asked, but have always had this problem with its asking).
    I’ll read it if I get the chance to; Mandela might have an answer for the reader who’s looking, and you, nicely, assure me that this isn’t part of the worse brand of autobiography(which means that Mandela probably put in good subtle points which I might not have thought up, not that he asked and answered the question explicitly).

  2. Gani Says:

    Thanks for dropping by, Ronak.

    My inference was that more than anything else the book should exhort the reader into action and it was in this context that I actually used those words.


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