Mandela’s Walk to Freedom

Our generation’s story of freedom

The prosecutor’s name was Mr. Bosch and the accused a national  hero Nelson Mandela, who tells his own story in a remarkable book called Long Walk to Freedom.[i] After years in imprisoned exile and then more days in prison connected to the trial and after the prosecutor had summoned more than a hundred witnesses, and with a court room wondering how many witnesses the accused would summon to the court, Mandela stood in his own defense (he was a lawyer) and here is how he describes it:

I rose, and instead of calling my first witness I declared quite matter-of-factly that I was not calling any witnesses at all, at which point I abruptly closed my case…. the charge was accurate and the state’s case was solid.

But Mandela was not about to back down and slip into a prison as a guilty man so he next said,

Your Worship, I submit that I am guilty of no crime.

They returned the next day to see if Mandela would appeal or change his mind. Bosch entered into the room and confessed this to Mandela:

For the first time in my career, I despise what I am doing. It hurts me that I should be asking the court to send you to prison.

Mandela later addressed the court and the prosecutor in what is a landmark speech of Mandela’s, including the following words:

The law as it is applied, the law as it has been developed over a long period of history, and especially the law as it is written and designed by the Nationalist government [the pro-apartheid party of South Africa] is a law which, in our views, is immoral, unjust and intolerable. Our consciences dictate that we must protest against it.

That story of unjust laws created and established and enforced from the 1940s involves African tribes more or less at peace among themselves and with the English whites and the Dutch whites and the Indians and the “coloreds.” It involves the election of the Afrikaners who, at the lead of Daniel Malan and Henrik Verwoerd, constructed the Bantu system of confining black Africans and creating a colossal system of oppression and injustice. No wall of separation was ever higher. Blacks lived on 13% and whites on 87% of the land though the population was less than 25% white. It was called “apartheid,” which means separateness. It was “a monolithic system that was diabolical in its detail, inescapable in its reach and overwhelming in its power.”

Almost from the moment Malan came to power many Africans, including some white Afrikaners and English, began to probe and protest and suffer imprisonment. Mandela was in the heat and heart of the struggle, and he experienced banning, confinements and endless restrictions through the invasion of his privacy. He went into hiding and engaged himself with others in secret meetings. They dubbed him the “Black Pimpernel.” As he put it, “An underground freedom fighter sleeps very lightly.”

Mandela was in the heat and heart of the struggle, and he experienced banning, confinements and endless restrictions through the invasion of his privacy and spent 27 years of his life in prison, 18 of which was in the prison on Robben Island off Cape Town, where his time went from wearing shorts because blacks were considered boys, to thirteen years of hard labor breaking up rocks in a lime quarry, to the softening of labor to the opportunity sometimes to study and at other times to restrictions from study. All this time the prison restricted the prisoners from news and from family letters and from family events. But they kept gathering and plotting and conniving until one day Nelson Mandela was summoned, taken to Cape Town under cover because he had become an international voice capable of creating riots, to two more prisons where he was given an increasing amount of “freedom.”

He negotiated with the powers of South Africa until he was released with the promise that he would not buckle under their compromised plea-bargains and neither would he change his message or his tactics until the powers were shaken and equality and freedom was established for all South Africans. Free from apartheid; freed unto justice and equality.

One of Mandela’s life lessons, and one drawn as much from his experience as his Methodist faith, was this: “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.” In perhaps one of his most penetrating insights into his life of chasing freedom, Mandela said “we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free.”

If I am more than grieved by the many Christians who diabolically supported apartheid and if I am grieved that this vision didn’t take hold in the churches of South Africa before apartheid could take hold, I am encouraged by the number of Africans who stood firm in their faith who were joined by many white Afrikaners and Anglicans who resisted the oppressors. If there is any group in the world who should fight for freedom of all sorts it is those who call themselves Christians.


[i] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (London: Abacus, 1994). I refer to pp. 127, 199-206 (on Freedom Charter), 233,  235, 270, 333, 389, 390, 392, 395, 562, 642, 751.

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