A Lifetime Struggle For Racial Freedom

IN ``Long Walk to Freedom: the Autobiography of Nelson Mandela,'' the mythic leader comes across as a very human being - and as a master politician, whom all South Africans were fortunate to have had to lead them out of the moral and spiritual tangles of apartheid. He comes across as a pragmatist, not an idealist; he knows it is better to befriend one's prison warder than to have him as an enemy.

But Mandela had a dream as surely as did Martin Luther King Jr.: an ideal of nonracial democracy. It was an ideal that sustained him through years of struggle and imprisonment and separation from the family that clearly means much to him, however much his work forced him to neglect them.

Mandela, born in 1918, had a traditional country childhood and then an education in missionary schools. His demeanor as a modern political leader seems to reflect his background as one being prepared to follow in his father's footsteps as counselor to the paramount chief of his tribe.

Faced with an arranged marriage he didn't want, he ran away to Johannesburg. The move precipitated his transformation into a committed African nationalist and member of the African National Congress (ANC). He pursued legal studies, eventually setting up with his longtime friend Oliver Tambo the only firm of African lawyers in the country, known as ``Mandela and Tambo.'' They had plenty to do. ``Africans were desperate for legal help in government buildings: it was a crime ... to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live.''

He was tried for treason on the basis of the ANC's ``Freedom Charter'' - a document expressing aspirations for a democratic future, in which the South African government saw an implicit threat to overthrow the state by force. The prosecution was unable to prove that the ANC had a policy of using violence, however - because it then did not - so Mandela was acquitted.

But not long after, he concluded that nonviolent means were getting his people nowhere. The 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, in which police fired into an unarmed crowd of demonstrators, was a galvanizing event. Mandela explains that as much as he would have preferred to stick to nonviolent means, he had the advantage neither of a fundamentally rational adversary, as Gandhi in India had in the British, nor of a functioning democracy with written constitutional guarantees, as the civil rights workers in the American South had.

And so he founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's military wing. This led to his sentence of life in prison, of which he served 27 years. He was spared the death penalty because the prosecution could prove only a plan for guerrilla warfare, not a decision to carry the plan out. (His discussions of the armed struggle lead the reader to believe that it never included anything more unpleasant than sabotaging power stations; more candor from him would have helped.) By the time of his release in February 1990, the momentum for a new South Africa, including negotiation between the ANC and the government, had begun.

This book, built on a memoir begun in prison, is rooted in history but concludes with events last year. While less than fully candid on some points - his discussion of his controversial wife, Winnie, for instance - it is a deeply touching chronicle of one of the remarkable lives of the 20th century.

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