One of the greatest leaders of our times, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela aka Madiba, was born on this day, 96 years ago. On this occasion, Google has put out a beautiful doodle. Last month, I finally got around to reading his excellent autobiography- “Long Walk to Freedom”. This is probably the best autobiography I have ever read. I think it gives a wonderful insight into the life of a charismatic leader.

The book is very lucidly written and flows very smoothly. It is a very candid and detailed account of his life. His vivid descriptions of his early childhood, his college years, his various escapades, his activities in the African National Congress, his numerous trials, his underground life, his militant activities etc are very interesting to read. He has of course described his successes in great detail. But I was very impressed to see him owning up to his mistakes, his prejudices and his shortcomings as well. His political ideologies, and their evolution over time, based on changing circumstances, are penned well.

His descriptions of his years in Robben Island are unparalleled. What stands out is his resolve to not be broken by the 27 years of oppression in prison, and his determination to come out of it with the will to lead a nation on a path devoid of apartheid. A quote from Invictus comes to mind, where Francois Pienaar says of Mandela: “I was thinking about how you spend 30 years in a tiny cell, and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there.”

After Robben island, when he was moved to Pollsmoor prison and later to Victor Verster prison, he had various rounds of negotiations with President De Klerk for the abolition of apartheid. These are covered in good detail, culminating in his release in 1990 and the first ever multi-racial election in 1994, when he became the first non-white President of South Africa. I would have liked his Presidential years to be covered in the book as well. But that period was excluded as this book was published in 1995, and the sequel was never published.

Finally, a quote from the book that illustrates the great person that he was:

Prison and the authorities conspire to rob each man of his dignity. In and of itself, that assured that I would survive, for any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose because I will not part with it at any price or under any pressure.

I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed towards the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lay defeat and death.

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