Among the memoirs I wish I could have excerpted in African Lives is Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. (The publisher’s permission fee was beyond my means.)
Fortunately, the book is easy to find, and will be read for many years to come. Here’s a section from the chapter I planned to reprint. In it, Mandela describes the first days of what became twenty-seven years of imprisonment, most of it on Robben Island.
At midnight, I was awake and staring at the ceiling — images from the trial were still rattling around in my head — when I heard steps coming down the hallway. I was locked in my own cell, away from the others. There was a knock at my door and I could see Colonel Aucamp’s face at the bars. “Mandela,” he said in a husky whisper, “are you awake?”
I told him I was. “You are a lucky man,” he said. “We are taking you to a place where you will have your freedom. You will be able to move around; you’ll see the ocean and the sky, not just gray walls.”
He intended no sarcasm, but I well knew that the place he was referring to would not afford me the freedom I longed for. He then remarked rather cryptically, “As long as you don’t make trouble, you’ll get everything you want.”
Aucamp then woke the others, all of whom were in a single cell, ordering them to pack their things. Fifteen minutes later we were making our way through the iron labyrinth of Pretoria Local, with its endless series of clanging metal doors echoing in our ears.
Once outside, the seven of us — Walter, Raymond, Govan, Kathy, Andrew, Elias, and myself — were handcuffed and piled into the back of a police van. It was well after midnight, but none of us was tired, and the atmosphere was not at all somber. We sat on the dusty floor, singing and chanting, reliving the final moments of the trial. The warders provided us with sandwiches and cold drinks and Lieutenant Van Wyck was perched in the with us. He was a pleasant fellow, and during a lull in the singing, he offered his unsolicited opinion on our future. “Well,” he said, “you chaps won’t be in prison long. The demand for your release is too strong. In a year or two, you will get out and you will return as national heroes. Crowds will cheer you, everyone will want to be your friend, women will want you. Ag, you fellows have it made.” We listened without comment, but I confess his speech cheered me considerably. Unfortunately, his prediction turned out to be off by nearly three decades.