Long Walk to Freedom: Remembering Mandela

Dear Ms. Moo,
I was wondering if you are going to make any more posts. I really enjoy reading them because they are very informing and comforting. I think Nelson Mandela would be a good topic because I know that he wanted peace but I don’t know much else. I hope to hear from you soon!

When I received this email, I realized I had never taken the time to write about the passing of Nelson Mandela. It also was a good reminder that there are people reading my blog and I should be better about posting. So big thanks to the friend who sent me the email – I needed some motivation! 🙂


One of the reasons why I didn’t write about Nelson Mandela closer to when he died, was because the impact it had on me was profound. I have been a longtime admirer of his, and for me he was one of the last living ahimsakas in our world. But I am glad to hear you’re interested in learning more. There is so much to tell about Nelson Mandela and his life, I’m not entirely sure where to start.  If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know I always enjoy talking about Gandhi and his life.  I thought I would share about Gandhi’s time in South Africa and how his commitment to nonviolence was established while there, as well as how part of Mandela’s legacy was rooted in work Gandhi had accomplished while he was in South Africa.

Gandhi in South Africa

At age 23, Gandhi left India and traveled to South Africa, hoping to earn a little bit of money and to learn more about being a lawyer.


Only one week after he arrived, he was asked to go on a long journey that included transportation by train and stagecoach. When Gandhi boarded the first train of this journey, railroad officials told him that he needed to transfer to the third-class passenger car.  When Gandhi, who was holding first-class passenger tickets, refused to move, a policeman came and threw him off the train. That was not the last of the injustices Gandhi suffered on this trip.  As Gandhi talked to other Indians in South Africa (derogatorily called “coolies”), he found that his experiences were not isolated incidents but rather, these types of situations were common. During that first night of his trip, sitting in the cold of the railroad station after being thrown off the train, Gandhi contemplated whether he should go back home to India or to fight the discrimination.  After much though, Gandhi decided that he could not let these injustices continue and that he was going to fight against the discrimination. Gandhi spent the next 20 years working to better Indians’ rights in South Africa.

Birth of Satyagraha


It was during his time in South Africa that Gandhi founded the phrase ‘satyagraha’, which means ‘soul force’.  Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha is both a personal and social struggle to realize the Truth, which he identified as God, the Absolute Morality.  Gandhi sought this Truth, not in isolation, self-centeredly, but with the people. He said, “I want to find God, and because I want to find God, I have to find God along with other people. I don’t believe I can find God alone.  If I did, I would be running to the Himalayas to find God in some cave there. But since I believe that nobody can find God alone, I have to work with people. I have to take them with me. Alone I can’t come to Him.”

In practice, satyagraha was a focused and forceful nonviolent resistance to a particular injustice.  A satyagrahi (a person using satyagraha) would resist the injustice by refusing to follow an unjust law.  In doing so, he would not be angry, would put up freely with physical assaults to his person and the confiscation of his property, and would not use foul language to smear his opponent.  A practitioner of satyagraha also would never take advantage of an opponent’s problems.  The goal was not for there to be a winner and loser of the battle, but rather, that all would eventually see and understand the “truth” and agree to rescind the unjust law.

Gandhi’s 20 years in South Africa helping fight discrimination was foundational in his development of satyagraha, which would later help lead India to its independence.

Mandela in South Africa: The prisoner who became president


young mandela 2

Mandela grew up in South Africa during apartheid (in the language Afrikaans, the word apartheid means ‘the state of being apart’), which was a social system in South Africa that forced white and non-white people to live in separate areas.  Non-white people meant black people, people from Asia and people of mixed race.  A white and a black person could not marry.  Black and white people could not share a table in a restaurant or sit together on a bus.  Black children and white children went to different schools, and sports teams were all-white or all-black, never mixed. When Mandela was growing up, black people had little say in how South Africa was run. The government was whites-only.  Most black people were poor and worked as servants – they worked on farms and in factories and gold mines.

In 1944, Nelson Mandela joined the African National Congress, or ANC.  The ANC wanted black South Africans to have the same human rights as whites.  Mandela led young people in the ANC.

anc flag

Many white people, as well as black people, spoke out against apartheid.  Mandela admired Gandhi, who had used peaceful protest in India.  Mandela thought that perhaps peaceful protest could get rid of apartheid, without fighting.  Speaking out was dangerous though – in 1956, Mandela and 155 other people were arrested for treason. (Treason means attempting to overthrow the government of one’s country.) After a trial lasting five years, he was set free in 1961.

In 1960, people held a demonstration against apartheid at Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, and the police shot dead 69 black people.  The government blamed the ANC and banned them from existing. As a result, Mandela had to hide and use disguises since he was being hunted by the police. Meanwhile, millions of people in other countries supported the anti-apartheid movement.  Many nations stopped trade with South Africa, and sports teams and entertainers refused to go there. But the government still refused to change.

sharpeville 1960

In 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested again and accused of plotting to overthrow the government.  In 1964,  he was given a life sentence in prison.Mandela was sent to prison on Robben Island, along with other ANC leaders.  He spent a total of 27 years in prison, and was allowed one visitor every 6 months.

hands in prison bars

madiba in prison





Mandela became the most famous prisoner in the world.  He did not give up – even the prison guards admired him.  From around the world, the calls got louder: Free Nelson Mandela!

free_mandela    Berlin, Weltgewerkschaftskongress, Probe des Festprogramms

In 1990, South Africa’s new president FW de Klerk set Nelson Mandela free.

mandela leaves prison

One of most amazing things about Mandela was his ability to keep fighting for what he knew was right, despite his circumstances. Even after being imprisoned for 27 years, he was able to walk away with and not look back. One of my favorite quotes is this one, which I believe speaks to the power of forgiveness:

as i walked out the door

Mandela and de Klerk agreed: no more fighting. Mandela called on all South Africans to work together in peace.

mandela and de klerk

In 1991, Mandela became leader of the ANC.

ANC youths wait for ANC President Nelson Mandela a

In the 1994 elections, all black people in South Africa were able to vote for the first time, and the ANC won the election.  mandela votes

A new government took over and in May 1994, Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president – he was 75 years old. Among many of the things he accomplished while in office, he is credited with helping the country of South Africa become a multiracial democracy.

mandela in May 1994

Gandhi and Mandela

Gandhi-Mandela together

Gandhi has been called “the liberator of India in South Africa” and is also seen as a founding father of Mandela’s South Africa of equal rights for all people.  Gandhi and Mandela came to a shared conviction that all suppressed people, whatever their differences of religion or ethnicity or caste, must stand together against their oppressors and, in Gandhi’s words, “cease to play the part of the ruled.”  Only a changed mindset could change the structure of white, colonial power.  Mandela many time referenced Gandhi as his biggest inspiration and he considered him his role model.  Nelson Mandela has been compared to the Father of the Nation of India by many historians and experts. There are striking similarities between both  great leaders that brought them international repute and followers.  The path of nonviolence trekked by them to free their country of slavery and dominance raised them to the same pedestal.

In a recent article on fansofindia.com, (click here for the full text), the author does a nice job of showing ways in which Gandhi inspired Mandela. Here are some highlights:

  • Both Gandhi and Mandela are considered world leaders for their undying efforts towards the liberation of their country and bringing justice to the countless fellow countrymen.  Neither of them sought violence for achieveing the freedom of their land. Their morals were high and clear-cut about fighting for the nation in a dignified and nonviolent manner.
  • Mandela is referred to as a true Gandhian by the Indian democrats and diplomats.  He is famous as one of the heirs of the Gandhian ideology of nonviolence and struggle for human rights.  They both spent a lot of time in the same prison in Johannesburg, Fort Prison.  Morever, Gandhi lived in South Africa from 1893 to 1914 and was also a victim of racial hatred while traveling in the country.  Gandhi and Mandela were both lawyers and Mandela went on to establish the first black law firm in South Africa.
  • Gandhi had always believed that there would be someone in South Africa to take up the cause of the blacks and work towards the freedom of the country from oppression.  Social and political injustice would be shunned by the masses and the land would be free.  On receiving the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, Mandela spoke profoundly of Mahatma Gandhi and how his teachings helped South Africa overcome Apartheid.
  • Both these leaders are respectively hailed as the Father of the Nation in their countries.  They are loved and respected across the masses and ages.  They are paid homage by the international community for sacrificing their lives for their country and taking the cause of humanity to different corners of the globe.

Both Gandhi & Mandela demonstrated to the world they could build inclusive societies, in which all Indians and South Africans would have a stake and whose strength, they argued, was a guarantee against disunity.  They both left legacies behind that we can learn from.  For me, the most striking thing is how they both walked a long road to freedom, and all the while stayed committed to nonviolence. I hope my fellow ahimsakas will join me in continuing to learn from these two great leaders as we strive to make the world more peaceful.

Gandhi and Mandela 2

One thought on “Long Walk to Freedom: Remembering Mandela

  1. Lainey says:

    Thanks for writing this! Learned a lot!

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