Lessons from Nelson Mandela

Published 22 Feb 2017

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Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom did not “electrify the world” but it surely electrified each and every person who bought and read it. The book promised to be an interesting read – and it successfully delivered. As Nelson Mandela is a celebrated figure, he became the subject of numerous books, with Anthony Sampson’s Mandela: The Authorized Biography being arguably the most accurate. But even the precision achieved by Sampson’s biography on Mandela is incomparable to that of Long Walk to Freedom most probably because the book was penned by the very man it seeks to expose: Nelson Mandela. The book is full of secrets on the former President of South Africa, secrets that made the book an interesting read. But more than the entertainment value, what I’d highlight about the book when recommending it to a friend is this: Life is full of many lessons, let Nelson Mandela teach you a few of them…read Long Walk to Freedom.

Lessons from Nelson Mandela:

A Reflection on Long Walk to Freedom

David Roberts Jr. (1995) may have been right when he said that Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom may not “electrify the world” but it surely electrified each and every person who bought and read it. Providing a good look inside the mind of one of the greatest champions of human rights and racial equity, Long Walk to Freedom promised to be an interesting read – and it successfully delivered.

Nelson Mandela is best known for his efforts as an anti-apartheid activist. He is also known to be the first one elected in fully representative democratic elections. And he is also the former President of South Africa. He was recipient to many awards and honors, with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 as probably the most noteworthy (Nelson Mandela, 2007). And as he is such a celebrated figure, it is but natural that he became subject of numerous books. A few notable ones are Martin Meredith’s Nelson Mandela, Tom Lodge’s Mandela: A Critical Life, and Mandela: The Authorized Portrait (Frankel, 2006). All three books tried their best to paint accurately the life that Mandela has lived. But the precision that these books achieved may not come close as to the one Anthony Sampson’s Mandela: The Authorized Biography accomplished. Being an authorized biography, Sampson’s book opened avenues of Mandela’s life that nobody has exposed before. But Mandela: The Authorized Biography is no comparison to Long Walk to Freedom when it comes to making surprising revelations about Mandela’s life – most probably because Long Walk to Freedom was penned by the very man it seeks to expose: Nelson Mandela. Being written by Mandela himself surely gave the book perspectives that other books could not afford.

Even without the book, everybody already knew – or at least thought they knew – a lot about Nelson Mandela. Perhaps it is safe to assume that it is no secret that Mandela’s advocacy has always been the freedom of his fellow South Africans, that his efforts towards this advocacy led to a 27-year imprisonment, that these same efforts broke up his marriage, and that he is considered one of – if not the – most respected presidents of South Africa. But between the pages of his 1995 autobiography, Mandela reveals pieces of information that has – up to then – remained a secret.

Rolihlahla, loosely meaning “pulling the branch of a tree” and euphemism for “troublemaker” and childhood name of Nelson Mandela, may have been a foster son of a Thembu chief but he definitely lived a simple life. Mandela described how, as a child, he’d walk barefoot through the paths of his village Qunu then play and fight with other boys from the village. He also painted other simplicities of his childhood life:
Maize (what we called mealies and people in the West call corn), sorghum, beans, and pumpkins formed the largest portion of out diet, not because of any inherent preference for these foods, but because the people could not afford anything richer…. The water used for farming, cooking, and washing had to be fetched in buckets from streams and springs…. Few is any of the people in the village knew how to read or write, and the concept of education was still a foreign one to many…. We slept on mats and sat on the ground. I did not discover pillows until I went away to school. (Mandela, 1995)
It was also during the time he was still known as Rolihlahla that Mandela learned about humility:

I learned my lesson one day from an unruly donkey. We had been taking turns climbing up and down its back and when my chance came I jumped on and the donkey bolted into a nearby thornbush. It bent its head, trying to unseat me, which it did, but not before the thorns had pricked and scratched my face, embarrassing me in front of my friends. Like the people of the East, Africans have a highly developed sense of dignity, or what the Chinese call “face”. I had lost face among my friends. Even though it was a donkey that unseated me, I learned that to humiliate another person is to make him suffer an unnecessarily cruel fate. Even as a boy, I defeated my opponents without dishonoring them. (Mandela, 1995)

Being an elementary teacher, what struck me the most was how Mandela’s early life reminded me that children are naturally gullible so I should always be careful with the lessons I impart on kids. Given that as years go by, children are able to siphon which information to retain and which to discard, it is still undeniable that their early experiences mold what they will become in the future. As with Mandela, the kind of leader he became can be traced back to his childhood observations of how the regent went about his duties. Mandela (1995) writes:

As a leader, I have always followed the principles I first saw demonstrated by the regent at the Great Place. I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion. I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind. (Mandela, 1995)

Who would have thought that a diplomat such as Mandela was once engaged in boxing? Indeed, there was a point in his life when he, together with his son Thembi, would spend one and a half hours of his Mondays to Thursdays training. It wasn’t much about the violence of the game but about “the science of it”. He loved how rank, age, color, and wealth became irrelevant in the boxing ring. “Boxing is egalitarian,” Mandela (1995) says. The sport’s ability to relieve him of stress and tension was another of boxing’s charm for Mandela. But what he loved most about it is its ability to shape hiss on into a leader with initiative and self-confidence.

Perhaps one of the most piercing parts of Mandela’s story was when he was forced to stay in prison during the deaths of his mother and son Madiba Thembekile, rendering him unable to say his proper goodbyes. It was especially hurtful because of the fact that these tragedies happened in short intervals (and even sandwiched another sad news of wife Winnie’s incarceration). This part emphasizes just how strong a character Mandela has – had these events happened to a lesser man, that man could have broken down. This is another way in how Mandela’s autobiography can change a person’s life: Mandela makes people see that if somebody who already has so much burden on his shoulders can take more burden, people who live a relatively normal life can surely achieve the same feat.

What was also amazing in reading about Mandela’s life in Mandela’s own words was how he was able to talk about freedom as nobody has defined it before. Mandela showed me how a fight for freedom can be an act devoid of selfishness:

…my hunger for the freedom of my own people became the hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken away from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. (Mandela, 1995)

Although it can be expected that the life Nelson Mandela lead was a difficult one, not just for himself but for his family as well, it was still heartbreaking to read the parts where he describes the struggles that his wife Winnie and children experienced. As he surmised, “When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room for family.” (Mandela, 1995)

Winnie was, like him, very passionate about her advocacies. And even as this passion has gotten her into trouble at times, it was nothing compared to the trouble her marriage with Mandela has caused. She was constantly pressured and her family threatened. But even when Mandela got out of prison, things between him and his wife never normalized. It is a common knowledge that Mandela separated from his wife – he announced so himself on

April 13, 1992 – but reading about his sentiments about the separation was sure a humbling experience:

But just as I am convinced that my wife’s life while I was in prison was more difficult than mine, my own return was also more difficult for her than it was for me. 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. (Mandela, 1995)

Such revelations make one realize that, painful as it may be to accept, becoming famous isn’t always glitz and glamour and that behind the ‘myth’ that Mandela has come to be known was the crumbling of a marriage he and his wife surely once dreamt to last forever.

Hard as it was to read about the end of Mandela’s marriage with Winnie, what touched my heart more was reading about the effect of Mandela’s life to his children. One couldn’t help but agree with (and feel the pain of) – whether or not s/he is a parent – the words Mandela said during his daughter Zindzi’s wedding: “To be the father of a nation is a great honor, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy. But it was a joy I had far too little of.” (Mandela, 1995) If a “normal” parent whose only obligation is to work and tend to his children finds moments when s/he is having a hard time balancing between work and family, what more for a parent who is considered father of his nation? The following words are of grave importance to parents who take time to read Mandela’s book as they are words that can make one feel that s/he is not alone in experiencing pain about not being able to always be with his/her family:

In that way, my commitment to my people, to the millions of South Africans I would never know or meet, was at the expense of the people I knew best and loved most. It was as simple and yet as incomprehensible as the moment a small child asks her father, “Why can you not be with us?” And the father must utter the terrible words: “There are other children like you, a great many of them….” and then one’s voice trails off. (Mandela, 1995)
Even without reading Long Walk to Freedom, one cannot deny that Nelson Mandela is indeed an admirable person, a person worth one’s praise and veneration. But it is through the book that one comprehends that Mandela is so very unlike the superheroes that so colorfully jumps out of comic books – Mandela may be great, he may have saved his fellow South Africans but he still is human. His book put him in a light where people can see his flaws, his joys, his pains – and that makes him so much more loveable. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography is such an easy read – I believe it is the best autobiography (if not the best book) I have read. But more than the entertainment value, what I’d highlight about the book when recommending it to a friend is this: Life is full of many lessons, let Nelson Mandela teach you a few of them…read Long Walk to Freedom.


  • Long Walk to Freedom (book). (2007, August 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 24, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Walk_to_Freedom_(book).
  • Mandela, Nelson. (1995). Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Boston: Little Brown & Co.
  • Nelson Mandela. (2007, August 27). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 27, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nelson_Mandela.
  • Roberts, David Jr. (1995, January 23). Long Walk to Freedom. – book reviews. Find Articles. Retrived August 24, 2007.
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