Friday, 27 July 2012

Book Review - Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela

This book has been on my mum's bookshelf for almost as long as I can recall. I think, in the beginning, I had a natural aversion to it on account of the fact that she had recommended it to me. Same reason as I hated Nirvana and the Foo Fighters and Metallica - because my brother liked them.

I know. I'm a dolt.

But I'm a loveable dolt! Right??? *looks hopeful*

Two vaguely interesting although minor segues - one, two of my closest friends Al and Emma have both read this book. As in, this copy. As in, they spend maybe 10 hours per year in my mum's house and they still read it before I did. Al beat it to me by a good ten years, perhaps even closer to fifteen (although it can't be fifteen because I didn't meet him until 1998).

Two, I had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela, thanks to Al... and I turned it down because I didn't really want to race to the station and catch a train into town and THEN find wherever it was this youth conference was being held, on time, all on my own (bear in mind that this was in a time before Google Maps and iPhones) - I think it was Etihad Stadium, previously known as Docklands Stadium, the Telstra Dome and Colonial Stadium, depending on who sponsored it that week . As it turns out, I would have been grossly underdressed to meet a leader of such global significance (I was wearing more casual clothing than the girl in burgandy shirt below), plus, at the time I knew he was a pretty awesome dude but that was about it because at seventeen I just had NO clue what the fuss was about... so my scardey-bone winning out probably wasn't such a terrible thing. Imagine an awkward moment where Dr Mandela asks me a really deep question and I blink at him like a goldfish, and that is how it would have gone.

This is a picture from the Day I Could Have Met Nelson Mandela But Didn't. Al is the well-dressed young man in the centre, and the guy over his shoulder to the left is another friend I have long since lost contact with, but who my money is still on to make a mark on the world somehow. I think I was also his first kiss during a highschool game of spin the bottle! The lady to the left of him was my Year 7 tute teacher, as well as my humanities teacher, and she was an odd one. Normally she was lovely, but don't even consider crossing her because she could just turn on you and get reeeeeeally nasty. As in, her eyes would send daggers of ice into your heart. I wonder what became of her, and what she was actually like outside of the classroom...
Anyway, back to the book.

It certainly WAS a long walk to freedom! But not in the same way that you felt you suffered through every single step and every single day that Brad Pitt spent in his Seven Years in Tibet (mind you, I was fifteen when I saw it so I may get more value out of it now). No, this was an informative and enlightening journey; and, as I find happens when I read any sort of book that lays down the history of a region, I felt like I understand the world a little better. It really is true that to move forward you have to acknowledge- but not dwell on - what came before.

The only thing I will say against it is that it is the only true (auto)biography I have read (the closest I have come is Three Cups of Tea, which is a really interesting book about Dr Greg Mortimer's experience building schools where girls are welcome, in the Pakistani foothills of the Himalayas), and that so far I don't find (auto)biographies to really be my style. Obviously that's not the fault of the author - it's just a matter of preference on my part. Some, like Three Cups of Tea, are written as though they are a story and that makes it a more enjoyable read for me. It is probably testament to the fact that Three Cups of Tea was a story told by the Dr Greg to the author, who then documented his journey. Long Walk to Freedom, on the other hand, was actually written by Dr Mandela, with only fact-checking and re-writing of confiscated sections completed or co-written by others.

As a novel (which I had mistakenly thought it was) it is a little bit heavy on the detail, but it's not a novel at all (well done, Vanessa. Well done.) - it's a work of non-fiction; an historical document, if you will. It chronicles every single name of every single person involved in any vague way with the fight for freedom in South Africa, and on what dates they particpated in that fight. Because of that saturation of information I can only recall literally a handful of names used (note: I began writing this six weeks ago and have since forgotten all but two names). But because  it is an autobiography it therefore makes sense to document the minutae of Dr Mandela's (and the African National Congress') struggle for freedom and for non-racial democracy in South Africa.

It begins with his childhood on his father's "farm" in the country, and his gradual move to the city for education. He completes highschool and obtains a law degree, all whilst being a major player in the ANC - initially in its youth arm and then then later in the main body of the organisation. Later still, as the fight intensifies, he founds an armed arm (heh. Sorry about that) of the organisation in response to the white government's refusal to cease violence against blacks, coloureds and Indians. (That's something else I learnt - that the three groups were treated separately, and that there was a hierarchy amongst them in terms of how the white government viewed them.) The book also describes the lengthy trial against himself and other freedom fighters, and what follows is quite a large portion of the book taking place on Roben Island, where Mandela was incarcerated for the majority of his 27 years in prison.

I never really understood the significance of Mandela being freed, or the circumstances under which he was locked up, until I read this. I knew it was a great step forward for the world when he was released, but I didn't know why. Some would call him a trouble-maker, and there is no question at all that he was a law-breaker and a revolutionary, but only because he existed in a climate that made it all but impossible to live freely in a lawful fashion. Being criminalised was an obvious outcome of not being allowed some quite basic freedoms.

I would definitely recommend a read. It willl take you quite a while to get through, but it is compelling enough to help you cope with the length. At the very least it should help you appreciate some very basic freedoms that we take for granted.

Lastly, it also raised some interesting questions in my mind about accepting the status quo in today's age, at least in the Western world (watch out, my mind's about to wander off-topic!). The freedoms we fight for seem so very trivial when you consider the marginalisation or unfair laws that various ethnic groups suffer in different parts of the world - even when they represent the majority of the population. These people's heads would probably explode if they ever heard about the CFMEU's latest EBA, and that under that agreement you can be paid around $1100 per 36-hour week for driving a 12-tonne truck (which just requires the appropriate licence), and $750 per week living away from home alowance. Sure, our cost of living is greater, but surely it's not twenty to forty times greater than the majority of African nations. Our expectations, on the other hand, probably are twenty to forty times higher, and that's the stuff mainstream society fights for here (freedom to own a flatscreen TV! Freedom for every family to own two cars! Freedom to not be made to do your homework! Freedom to be handed money by the government for breeding (accidentally or otherwise), and then the freedom to complain about not being paid enough to not work while you bring the kid up! (heh. Sorry. Capitalist rant over. Although this is an interesting read - barstool economics)), not real, basic freedoms.

With the focus in the West so heavily on individual entitlement and freedom to do whatever one jolly well pleases with no consequence and no thought of others (precious little petals that we are), surely it's only a matter of time until life as we know it collapses into a smoking heap of rubble. The lack of genuine freedom has a similarly chaotic effect - Long Walk to Freedom demonstrated that very clearly - but after the point where basic, actual freedoms are fought for and (hopefully) obtained it becomes a philosphical argument. Why should some little punk with his underwear sticking out the top of his pants, in the space of half an hour, be free to graffitti public property, evade train fares and listen to his iPod so loudly that everyone within a 20m radius can hear it, too? And if his freedom encroaches on my freedom to be proud of where I live, not be visually assaulted by his underwear (or worse, his bum crack) and enjoy a reasonable level of serenity, then why can't I be free to drag him by the ear to the local cop shop? It's my country, too, and I'm not so keen for jerks like that to exist.

And on it goes.

I think that that we in the West should take a moment to think about which freedoms are important and which are not. Society became regulated for a reason, and even the most basic structures in society have some form of regulation. Even a hive of bees has rules and structure and process.

So what freedoms would you give up? And what does freedom mean to you? And how far would you go to fight for it?

PS - I turned 30 last week, and I think it really shows in this cranky old lady rant. I'm enjoying this 30 business!

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