A couple years ago I got around to reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Having grown up learning about Mandela as larger-than-life hero, I expected a very serious and tactical account of his struggle. Instead Mandela’s autobiography is as warm, human and even funny as can be. He’s as open about his vulnerabilities, mistakes and regrets as he is about his triumphs.
The entire book is a must read, and given the news it should be moved to the top of your reading list, but in the meantime I thought I’d share my favorite lines from the book by way of my Kindle highlights.
in Johannesburg I found that many of the most outstanding leaders had never been to university at all
I always regarded Alexandra Township as a home where I had no specific house, and Orlando as a place where I had a house but no home.
There is little favorable to be said about poverty, but it was often an incubator of true friendship. Many people will appear to befriend you when you are wealthy, but precious few will do the same when you are poor. If wealth is a magnet, poverty is a kind of repellent. Yet, poverty often brings out the true generosity in others.
In love, unlike politics, caution is not usually a virtue. I was neither confident enough to think that I might succeed nor secure enough to bear the sense of failure if I did not.
There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.
I discovered for the first time people of my own age firmly aligned with the liberation struggle, who were prepared, despite their relative privilege, to sacrifice themselves for the cause of the oppressed.
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, From henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.
I often visited the home of Amina Pahad for lunch, and then suddenly, this charming woman put aside her apron and went to jail for her beliefs. If I had once questioned the willingness of the Indian community to protest against oppression, I no longer could.
I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.
In politics, no matter how much one plans, circumstances often dictate events.
I had moved from the role of a gadfly within the organization to one of the powers that I had been rebelling against. It was a heady feeling, and not without mixed emotions. In some ways, it is easier to be a dissident, for then one is without responsibility.
It was the first time I had taken a significant part in a national campaign, and I felt the exhilaration that springs from the success of a well-planned battle against the enemy and the sense of comradeship that is born of fighting against formidable odds.
The struggle, I was learning, was all-consuming. A man involved in the struggle was a man without a home life.
The insidious effect of bans was that at a certain point one began to think that the oppressor was not without but within.
At Majuba Hill the Afrikaner had stoutly defended his independence against British imperialism and struck a blow for nationalism. Now the descendants of those same freedom fighters were persecuting my people who were struggling for precisely the same thing the Afrikaners had once fought and died for.
Seditious thoughts accompany a freedom fighter wherever he goes.
A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones
Although I am a gregarious person, I love solitude even more. I welcomed the opportunity to be by myself, to plan, to think, to plot.
I was criticized by our executive for making that remark before it was discussed by the organization, but sometimes one must go public with an idea to push a reluctant organization in the direction you want it to go.
If you wait for textbook conditions, they will never occur.
I, who had never been a soldier, who had never fought in battle, who had never fired a gun at an enemy, had been given the task of starting an army.
I began the only way I knew how, by reading and talking to experts. What I wanted to find out were the fundamental principles for starting a revolution. I discovered that there was a great deal of writing on this very subject, and I made my way though the available literature on armed warfare and in particular guerrilla warfare.
An underground freedom fighter sleeps very lightly.
I am sometimes adept at appearing brave and I pretended that I was unconcerned.
I had always known that arrest was a possibility, but even freedom fighters practice denial, and in my cell that night I realized I was not prepared for the reality of capture and confinement.
I would not, under any circumstances, seem despairing or even disappointed to my captors.
I did not contemplate escape when people were kind to me; I did not want to take advantage of the trust they placed in me.
prison is an incubator of friendship
I had been afraid, and spoke not from courage, but out of a kind of bravado. At such times, one must put up a bold front despite what one feels inside.
In politics, one can never underestimate how little people know about a situation.
I was prepared for the death penalty. To be truly prepared for something, one must actually expect it. One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen. We were all prepared, not because we were brave but because we were realistic. I thought of the line from Shakespeare: “Be absolute for death; for either death or life shall be the sweeter.”
I was forty-six years old, a political prisoner with a life sentence, and that small cramped space was to be my home for I knew not how long.
Routine is also comforting for the prisoner, which is why it can be a trap. Routine can be a pleasant mistress whom it is hard to resist, for routine makes the time go faster.
I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lay defeat and death.
Exercise dissipates tension, and tension is the enemy of serenity.
What moved me most was a brief image of Winston Churchill weeping after he heard the news of the loss of the British vessel. The image stayed in my memory a long time, and demonstrated to me that there are times when a leader can show sorrow in public, and that it will not diminish him in the eyes of his people.
A man can get used to anything, and I had grown used to Robben Island.
I have always found change difficult, and leaving Robben Island, however grim it had been at times, was no exception.
In every meeting with an adversary, one must make sure one has conveyed precisely the impression one intends to.
There were telegrams from all around the world, from presidents and prime ministers, but I remember one in particular from a white Cape Town housewife that amused me greatly. It read: “I am very glad that you are free, and that you are back among your friends and family, but your speech yesterday was very boring.”
I had always read that New York was a hard-hearted place, but I felt the very opposite of that on my first full day in the city.
Television had shrunk the world, and had in the process become a great weapon for eradicating ignorance and promoting democracy.
She married a man who soon left her; that man became a myth; and then that myth returned home and proved to be just a man after all.
When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made.
To be the father of a nation is a great honor, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy.
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.