As everyone who has already overindulged in chocolate, flowers and dinner reservations knows, today is Valentine’s Day.
I debated for a while which book to write about for this post. I considered R.M. Johnson’s Million Dollar Divorce before heeding my wife Dunreith’s point that a book about a guy who hires another man to sleep with his wife and avoid paying $1 million in a divorce wouldn’t be the best match for a day about love and romance.
Fair enough, but do check the book out if you want a very fast, light and relatively graphic Chicago story with a couple of funky twists at the end.
After some more deliberation, I thought about someone who through his life has embodied many different types of love: love of family, love of humanity; love of culture and tradition; yes, love of women; and, ultimately, love of freedom.
That man is Nelson Mandela.
The former ANC head and South African president turned 90 last July, walks with a cane and is not seen in public as often as in previous years.
But his commitment to equality and acceptance of all people remains undimmed. In the past few years, in addition to issuing salvos against what he saw as the follies of George W. Bush, Mandela has focused on the issue of HIV and AIDS, a disease that claimed the life of his oldest son, Makgatho, in 2005.
Mandela told his life story from his birth in the rural Transkei to being elected president of South Africa in 1994 in the country’s first truly democratic elections in Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.
It is an epic tale.
Mandela is a gripping storyteller and a skillful writer. The combination hooks the reader from the very first sentence, which reads, “Apart from life, a strong constitution, and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlhala.”
Mandela is first and foremost an African, and the first section of the book covers his early years in the rural areas, learning from others by observation, engaging in stick fighting and enduring the pain of circumcision at age 16. Several years later, he made one of the first significant adult decisions, and one that truly altered his life’s trajectory, by fleeing an arranged marriage and heading to Johannesburg, the city of gold known in Zulu as “Egoli.”
While in his new home, Mandela both became a lawyer-he and former ANC head Oliver Tambo formed the country’s first black law firm-and became involved in politics. It was a gradual involvement that eventually came to be his life’s mission. He writes:
“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”
Mandela pursued his vision of a free and democratic South Africa free of the oppressive yoke of the apartheid system with a controlled fury during the following half-century. In the book he traces his and many other people’s nonviolent efforts to change the system, his determination that a nonviolent approach was futile and subsequent decision to found Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, the African National Congress’ military branch.
Mandela also recounts his years in hiding, when he was known as the Black Pimpernel, the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, his 27 years in prison, release and, finally, his victory over National Party head F.W. de Klerk and a host of other candidates in the 1994 elections.
A dizzying and dazzling array of characters, from the thoughtful Tambo to Chief Albert Luthuli, a previous ANC head, to long-time comrades like Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo to the recently deceased Helen Suzman, fill the book. Apartheid stalwarts like Hendrik Verwoerd make appearances, too. One of the book’s many positive features is that the reader, I imagine by design, gets a primer on 20th century South African history.
But this is indeed a memoir, not a history. Mandela shares many personal moments, such as the time in the mid-80s when he held his then-wife Winnie for the first time in 21 years. He also repeatedly shows moments when he either makes mistakes, like when he insisted that a fellow prisoner surrender all of his cherished tobacco, or when he did not know what to do. One part of his life that I had never considered before reading the book was how Umkhonto we Sizwe decided what to do after renouncing nonviolence.
The answer: they read books!
This humanity is one of the book’s most appealing aspects. Mandela’s confidence and willingness to show his weaknesses not only underscores his strength, but keeps the reader engaged.
Mandela’s unceasing commitment to, and love for, his people and the principles of justice, equality and freedom course through the book, too. He shows how he and others struggled continually, sacrificing decades of their lives, destroying marriages, missing loved ones’ funerals in the process.
In the end, though, they won.
Mandela recounts the history of his release in February 1990 and the ensuing whirlwhind of events during the next four years that culminated in his election.
The book does have some faults.
Mandela can be forgiven for the fact that at times the book reads like a 600 plus-page acceptance speech in which he thanks nearly every one he has met or who he feels contributed to the freedom struggle. To begin, it is his book and he has earned the right to write it through his life. More basically, though, the acknolwedgment is consistent with Mandela’s view of himself as being a servant of the people, who ultimately deserve the credit. The coverage he gives to Winnie Mandela’s descent from freedom fighting icon to leader of a thuggish and murdering “soccer team” that terrorized the townships and Mandela’s role in the ending of his first marriage could be more extensive, too.
There is irony in reading the book’s final paragraph, in which he concludes that he cannot rest for long because his long walk to freedom is not yet ended. South Africa’s AIDS problem has exploded, the economy has taken a nose dive like those of most other countries , leaving millions who had not escaped poverty and unemployment in even more dire straits, and alleged rapist Jacob Zuma seems poised to become the country’s next elected leader.
Come what may in the future, and whatever the book’s shortcomings are, though, this Valentine’s Day is a perfect time to reflect on the man from Qunu who not only has found love and happiness with Graca Machel, but who desired the taste of freedom and has refused to relinquish it to this day.