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article imageReview: Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom

By Michael Terron     Dec 27, 2013 in Entertainment
The release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, after twenty-seven years of political imprisonment in South Africa, ranks as one of the most momentous events of the 20th century. The recent biopic of his life insight-fully illuminates this moment.
In the worldwide struggle against white supremacy Mandela's ascent to the presidency of his country is more significant than Barack Obama becoming the United States' first black president. The latter's victory was the result of a impressive, peaceful electoral contest following several previously unsuccessful black presidential campaigns. Mandela's triumph was forged in a bloody battle which saw the, eventual, losing side use every conceivable method of subterfuge and sabotage to hold on to their illegitimate power. Also, black South Africans had never been allowed to vote before. Although Long Walk to Freedom does not show us all the seamy details, we are able to discern just how determined the regressive and repressive apartheid regime could be, right up to the very bitter end.
South Africa's long march to a non-racial, democratic society could actually be traced back to 1807. At that time the British parliament, under pressure from abolitionists, passed the Slave Trade Act, abolishing the transport of slaves, and then outlawed slavery in all of its colonies in 1833, including what was to become South Africa. "During the 1830s approximately 12,000 Boers (later known as Voortrekkers) departed from the Cape Colony, where they had been subjected to British control. The discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1884 in the interior started the Mineral Revolution and increased economic growth and immigration. This intensified European-South African subjugation of the indigenous people and conflicts between the Boers and the British.
Within the country, anti-British policies among white South Africans focused on independence. After the end of the Second Boer War and after four years of negotiations, an act of the British Parliament created the Union of South Africa, on May 31, 1910. The Native Land Act of 1913 severely restricted the ownership of land by Blacks." The same year, the African National Congress (ANC) was formed . . . In 1948, white supremacy was further entrenched with the ascent to power of the National Party. With people-of-color barred from voting, the minority white population elected Daniel Malan as president. Legislation was passed expanding segregation, such as the degrading pass laws.
In the movie we witness a scene of several white policemen arresting an inebriated black man for not having his 'pass' i.e., mandatory identification. When the man collapses, vomiting on the shoes of one of the policemen, he is brutally beaten to death. When Mandela, a practicing lawyer by this time, inquires into the unconscionable act, he is callously dismissed by an 'official': "Why don't you stop interfering with the law, boy?"
"My country was not created to be a land of hatred. People learn to hate. They can be taught to love."
Undeterred, Madiba (Nelson's Xhosa clan name) eventually joins the ANC. He continues his law studies at the University of Witwatersrand. " It was there that he befriended liberal and communist European, Jewish and Indian students; among them, Joe Slovo, Harry Schwarz and Ruth First. He was increasingly influenced by Walter Sissulu, spending much time with other activists at Sissulu's home, including old friend and law partner, Oliver Tambo.
When Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 he declared that he was not a saint or prophet. The movie clearly reveals this. In 1944 he marries Evelyn Mase, after initially living with her relatives. The union produces two children; one of whom dies in infancy of meningitis. His thirteen-year marriage is undermined by Mandela's infidelity, philosophical differences - she's a devout Jehovah's Witness -and long periods of separation due to his increasingly demanding schedule as a prominent political activist and leader.
The Sharpsville Massacre in 1960, in which South African police killed scores of unarmed people protesting the pass laws, is the turning point for Mandela and the ANC. After going underground, he tells foreign journalists that the organization had "advocated non-violence and peace for fifty years only to be met with vicious attacks from the South African government." ANC leaders, consequently, formed Umkhonto we Sizwe - Spear of the Nation (MK), and decide to conduct acts of sabotage, e.g., bombing of military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transport links, at night. Mandela said, "Strict instructions were given to members of MK that we would countenance no loss of life." The organization is immediately banned by the government. Mandela trains in guerrilla warfare and travels secretly to Ethiopia, Egypt, Tunisia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal and England.
The actual circumstances of Mandela's arrest in 1963 are greatly disputed by both his friends and enemies. However, the film depicts a dramatic car chase in which an armed Mandela is finally surrounded by heavier-armed police, not far from from his hiding place on Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, South Africa. A trial begins at the Palace of 'Justice' on October 9th, with he and his comrades charged with four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. The accused admit to sabotage but deny sedition.
"At the opening of the defense proceedingsMandela gave a three-hour speech, inspired by Fidel Castro's, History Will Absolve Me speech, and was widely reported in the South African press despite official censorship and has been hailed as one of his greatest speeches. The trial gained international attention, with global calls for the release of the accused by such institutions as the United Nations and the World Peace Council . . . Deeming them to be violent communist agitators, South Africa's government ignored all calls for clemency, sentencing them to life imprisonment, instead of death."
Thus, begins Mandela's longest walk to freedom. The political prisoners, including Sissulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Goven Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba, are sent to the notorious prison on Robben Island. Isolated from the non-political prisoners, they live, for the next eighteen years in damp, eight feet -by-seven feet cells, with a wash basin, 'slop' bucket and sleeping mat. Their days are spent breaking rocks in a lime quarry or pulling weeds from the nearby ocean. (Initially, Mandela was denied sunglasses and the glare from the lime permanently damaged his eyes.) Classified as the lowest grade of prisoner, he is allowed one visitor and one letter every six months. A poignant scene in the movie shows Mandela opening a letter from his wife, which has been sliced-up by prison guards.
By the beginning of the 1980s there was renewed international interest in Mandela's case. He was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, from India; the Freedom of the City Award, from Scotland; and an honorary doctorate degree, from Lesotho. In 1981 the UN Security Council called for his release. In April, 1982, he and his comrades are moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, a more spacious facility in Cape Town. (It is suspected that the move was motivated by the desire to separate the 'old' revolutionaries from the younger ones, who were now being incarcerated in mass numbers on the island.) They are permitted a roof garden and fifty-two letters a year. Mandela continues his studies for his LLB degree. Their living quarters remain under 24-hour surveillance, however.
The anti-apartheid movement finally spread to the United States (of which this writer was an active participant.) Municipalities and companies all over the country were pressured to 'divest' their vast assets from the racist regime. African Americans, in particular, began to draw parallels between the situation in South Africa and the history of segregation in the U.S. Congress passed legislation to stop aid to the country. Then-President Reagan had to utilize his veto power to stop its enactment.
A big leap forward occurs, in 1988, when the Minister of Justice and four other South African officials, secretly meet with Mandela to discuss conditions for his release. Subsequently, while recovering from tuberculosis, he is moved to Victor Verster Prison and housed in a warder's quarters, with a personal cook, and is allowed many more personal visits. . .In 1989, P.W. Botha was replaced as president - following a stroke - by F.W. de Klerk, who legalized the ANC and began the process of freeing Mandela and the other political prisoners. The strengths and weaknesses of the final results of 'talks' between the parties are ultimately based on the recognition of four, irrefutable facts: 1) the apartheid regime cannot be militarily defeated by the revolutionary movement 2) the revolutionary movement is capable of making the country ungovernable 3) as long as Mandela is imprisoned the war will continue 4) international economic sanctions must be ended
Long Walk to Freedom sheds light on the changing relationship between Nelson and his second wife, the highly celebrated and much-maligned Winnie. We see how the barbaric repression of apartheid violates the most intimate aspects of family life. A trained nurse and social worker, Winnie marries Nelson in 1958, giving birth to three children in the brief time they are together. In many ways, her trials and tribulations are as difficult as her husband's. After Nelson's imprisonment she heroically continues to promote the 'movement', only to be repeatedly taken from her home, banned, separated from her children, harassed and tortured. At one point she is subjected to sixteen straight months of solitary confinement.
As the struggle intensifies inside South Africa, Winnie has clearly become a very angry and militant leader. Many in the ANC are embarrassed by her sanctioning of 'necklacing', i.e., placing burning tires around the necks of suspected traitors. As negotiations begin between Nelson and the regime, she, and others, criticize him for 'selling out' to their enemies. As much as one can understand Nelson's pragmatism and willingness to forgive his jailers and oppressors, it is not hard to empathize with Winnie. Left alone, as a young woman with children, subjected to the assaults of armed thugs-driven-crazy by the myth of white supremacy and the morbid fear of Black revenge - how could she not feel anything but unmitigated loathing and hatred? Nevertheless, as Nelson states, in an address to Black South Africans, after witnessing the 'intra-group' slaughter apartheid has generated: "Peace is the only solution. We cannot beat them at war. But we can beat them in an election."
Long Walk to Freedom is based on Nelson Mandela's autobiography of the same title. It stars Idris Elba. It was directed by Justin Chadwick, with a screenplay by William Nicholson.
More about Nelson mandela, African national congress, Apartheid
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