40 Quotes from Nelson Mandela’s Autobiography – Long Walk to Freedom


I chose 40 quotes that stood out to me, there’s many more in the book.

Book review.

1. 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, Rolihlahla. In Xhosa, Rolihlahla literally means ‘pulling the branch of a tree’, but its colloquial meaning more accurately would be ‘troublemaker’. I do not believe that names are destiny or that my father somehow divined my future, but in later years, friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name the many storms I have both caused and weathered.

2. I recall when my mother told us about a traveller who was approached by an old woman with terrible cataracts on her eyes. The woman asked the traveller for help, and the man averted his eyes. Then another man came along and was approached by the old woman. She asked him to clean her eyes, and even though he found the task unpleasant, he did as she asked. Then, miraculously, the scales fell from the old woman’s eyes and she became young and beautiful. The man married her and became wealthy and prosperous. It is a simple tale, but its message is an enduring one: virtue and generosity will be rewarded in ways that one cannot know.

3. On the first day of school, my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name and said that thenceforth that was the name we would answer to in school. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. In which British ideas, British culture and British institutions were automatically assumed to be superior. There was no such thing as African culture. Africans of my generation – and even today – generally have both a western and African name. Whites were either unable or unwilling to pronounce an African name, and considered it uncivilized to have one. That day, Miss Mdingane told me my new name was Nelson. Why she bestowed this particular name upon me I have no idea.

4. The government had always utilised divide-and-rule tactics when dealing with Africans and depended on the strength of ethnic divisions between the people.

5. There is little to be said in favour of 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 kind of a repellent.

6. The Indian campaign became a model for the type of protest that we in the youth league were calling for. It instilled a spirit of defiance and radicalism among the people, broke the fear of prison and boosted the popularity and influence of the NIC and TIC. They reminded us that the freedom struggle, was not merely a question of making speeches, holding meetings, passing resolutions and sending deputations but of meticulous organisation, militant mass action and above all, the willingness to suffer and sacrifice.

7. Malan’s platform was known as apartheid. Apartheid was a new term but an old idea. It literally means ‘apartness’ and it represented the codification in one oppressive system of all the laws and regulations that had kept Africans in an inferior position to whites for centuries. What had been more or less de facto was to become relentlessly de jure. The often haphazard segregation of the past 300 years was to be consolidated into a monolithic system that was diabolical in its details, inescapable in its reach and overwhelming in its power. The premise of apartheid was that whites were superior to Africans, Coloureds and Indians and the function of it  was to entrench white supremacy for ever. As the nationalists put it ‘Die wit man moet altyd wees‘ (the white man must always remain boss). Their platform rested on the term: baasskap, literally ‘boss-ship’, a loaded word that stood for white supremacy in all its harshness. The policy supported by the dutch reformed church, which furnished apartheid with its religious underpinnings by suggesting that Afrikaners were God’s chosen people and that blacks were a subservient species. In the Afrikaner’s world view, apartheid and the church went hand in hand.

8. Laws stripping people of their rights were inevitably described as laws restoring those rights.

9. The same day white south Africans would be celebrating the three-hundredth anniversary of Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape in 1652. 6 April is the day white south Africans annually commemorate as the founding of their country – and Africans revile as the beginning of 300 hundred years of enslavement.

10. The stigma usually associated with imprisonment had been removed. This was a significant achievement, for the fear of prison is a tremendous hindrance to a liberation struggle. From the defiance campaign onward, going to prison became a badge of honour.

11. Africans were desperate for legal help in government buildings: it was a crime to walk through a whites only door, a crime to ride a whites only bus, a crime to use a whites only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a whites only beach, a crime to be on the streets after 11pm, a crime not to have a pass-book and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in a certain place and a crime to have no place to live.

12. But the consequences of the Bantu education come back to haunt the government in unforeseen ways. For it was Bantu education that produced in the 1970s the angriest, most rebellious generation of black youth the country had ever seen. When these children of Bantu education entered their late teens and early 20s, they rose with a vehemence.

13. I wondered – not for the first time – whether one was ever justified in neglecting the welfare of one’s own family in order to fight for the welfare of others. Can there be anything more important than looking after one’s ageing mother? Is politics merely a pretext for shirking one’s responsibilities, an excuse for not being able to provide in the way one wanted?

14. While I was walking in the city one day, I noticed a white woman in the gutter gnawing on some fish bones. She was poor and apparently homeless but she was young and not unattractive. I knew of course that there were poor whites, whites who were every bit as poor as Africans but one rarely saw them. I was used to seeing black beggars on the street and it startled me to see a white one. While I normally did not give to African beggars, I felt the urge to give this woman money. In that moment I realised the tricks that apartheid plays on one, for the everyday travails that afflict Africans are accepted as a matter of course, while my heart immediately went out to this bedraggled white woman. In south Africa, to be poor and black was normal, to be poor and white was a tragedy.

15. The idea was to preserve the status quo where 3 million whites owned 87% of the land and relegate the 8 million to the remaining 13%.

16. It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones – and south Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.

17. The major event facing the country in 1958 was the general election – ‘general’ only in the sense that 3 million whites could participate, but none of the 13 million Africans. We debated whether or not to stage a protest. The central issue was: did an election in which only whites could participate make any difference to Africans? The answer, as far as the ANC was concerned, was that we could not remain indifferent even when we were shut out of the process. We were excluded, but not unaffected.

18. My relative, chief Mdingi, suggested the name Zenani, which means ‘what have you brought to the world?’ – a poetic name that embodies a challenge, suggesting one must contribute something to society. It is a name one does not simply possess, but has to live up to.

19. But my career as a lawyer and activist removed the scales from my eyes. I saw there was a wide difference between what I had been taught in the lecture room and what I learned in the courtroom. I went from having an idealistic view of the law as a sword of justice to a perception of the law as a tool used by the ruling class to shape society in a way favourable to itself.

20. There is a streak of goodness in men that can be buried or hidden and then emerge unexpectedly.

21. International public opinion, he said, sometimes is worth more than a fleet of jet fighters.

22. When we saw the statue of General Smuts near Westminster Abbey, Oliver and I joked that perhaps some day there would be a statue of us instead.

23. Men, I think, are not capable of doing nothing, of saying nothing, of not reacting to injustice, of not protesting against oppression, of not striving for the good of society and the good life in the ways they see it.

24. Nothing is more dehumanizing than the absence of human companionship.

25. We had to show them that we were not everyday criminals but political prisoners being punished for our beliefs.

26. During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for I which I am prepared to die for.

27. Mine read, ‘N. Mandela 466/64’, which meant I was the 466th prisoner admitted to the island in 1964. I was 46 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.

28. Two years later, Robben Island was without question the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system. It was a hardship station not only for the prisoners but for the prison staff. Gone were the coloured warders who had supplied cigarettes and sympathy. The warders, now white and overwhelmingly Afrikaans-speaking, demanded a master-servant relationship. They ordered us to call them baas, which we refused to do. The racial divide on Robben island was absolute: there were no black warders, and no white prisoners.

29. I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being an optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed towards the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when the faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lay defeat and death.

30. The prison authorities respected the International Red Cross – and by respected, I mean feared, for the authorities respected only what they were afraid of.

31. There was a lesson in what I had done, a lesson I already knew but had disobeyed out of desperation. No one, least of all a prison official, ever likes to have his authority publicly challenged. In order to respond to me, Aucamp would have had to humiliate his subordinate.

32. One has time to think. In the vortex of the struggle, when one is constantly reacting to changing circumstances, one rarely has the chance to consider carefully all the ramifications of one’s decisions or policies.

33. But their suspicions merely reflected the insecurities of narrow, shortsighted men who blamed their problems not on their own misguided policies but on an opponent by the name of the ANC.

34. I thought about this moment for a long time afterwards. Badenhorst had perhaps been the most callous and barbaric commanding officer we had had on Robben island. But that day in the office, he had revealed that there was another side to his nature, a side that had been obscured but that still existed. It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their hearts are touched, they are capable of changing. Ultimately, Badenhorst was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behaviour.

35. Winnie is a resilient person, and within a relatively short time she had won over the people of the township, including some sympathetic whites in the vicinity. She supplied food to the people in the township with the help of operation hunger, started a crèche for the township’s children and raised funds to create a medical clinic in a place where few people had ever seen a doctor.

36. It reaffirmed my long-held belief that education was the enemy of prejudice.

37. In Plato’s allegory of the metals, the philosopher classifies men into groups of gold, silver and lead. Oliver Tambo was pure as gold, there was gold in his intellectual brilliance, gold in his warmth and humanity, gold in his tolerance and generosity, gold in his unfailing loyalty and self-sacrifice. As much as I respected him as a leader, that is how much I loved him as a man.

38.Voters were to place an X in the box next to the party of their choice. I would tell audiences, ‘on election day, look down at your ballot and when you see the face of a young and handsome man, mark a X’. 🙂

39. Perhaps it requires such depths of oppression to create such heights of character.

40. I have walked the 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 only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.

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