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A Long Walk to Understanding

The last line in Nelson Mandela’s memoir, “A Long Walk to Freedom,” says “But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.” With so many thoughts, ideas, feelings, and reflections that come from this 625-page journey, I wrestled with how to articulate the way in which Mandela touched me during my walk with him. The one thing I have continuously returned too, though, is Mr. Mandela’s willingness to listen to others, to hear what they have to say and evaluate it, before responding. It reminds me of a small part in the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, which says, “may I not so much seek to be understood as to understand.”

This book, “A Long Walk to Freedom” is Nelson Mandela, the first president of Post-Apartheid South Africa’s memoir detailing his life from boyhood until after the first election. The first election where every male and female of voting age was allowed to vote, regardless of race or ethnicity. Before continuing, for those readers who have not heard—or heard very little about apartheid and how it worked itself in the country of South Africa, allow me to give a brief summary:

Apartheid, meaning, “A policy or system of segregation or discrimination on the grounds of race.”[i] In 1949, the political party known as the National Party, made up of Afrikaaners (the white minority group who has resided in South Africa since the late 1600’s), came into power. Over the course of several decades, this government began to implement laws that made up what was called ‘apartheid.’ For the white community in South Africa, apartheid gave them the advantage of having only-white schools, live-in maids, cheap labour in the mines in South Africa, and a variety of other privileges.

For every other community—black, Indian, coloured[ii]—apartheid meant poor housing conditions, not enough money, education in the oppressor’s language, beatings by police, holistic oppression by the government. Nelson Mandela’s role during this era was in fighting against the injustices done to the people of South Africa who were not part of the dominating culture.

From his time in Mvezo, in the district of Umtata in the southeast part of South Africa, to the first moment he stepped into the law firm of “Witkin, Sidelsky, and Eidelman” (Mandela 70), Mandela found himself listening to and seeking understanding of each of the perspectives he was encountering. This continued to happen throughout his life, particularly during his time interacting with members of the Pan Africanist Congress (a group often in opposition to the African National Congress, of which Mandela was a member) while in prison, as well as during the negotiating meetings[iii] with the Nationalist, apartheid-implementing, government in the early nineties.

As I read Mandela’s story, I found myself soaking up each part of the many trials he endured; both trials in life and the trials in the courtroom which would sentence him to life imprisonment for holding beliefs that differed from those in power. Later on, as Mandela chose to sacrifice time with his family, in order to fight against apartheid, I wondered what sort of sacrifices I might have to make in the future—family, time, even my very life. In relation to the idea of sacrifice, Mandela says, “I did not in the beginning choose to place my people above my family, but in attempting to serve my people, I found that I was prevented from fulfilling my obligations as a son, a brother, a father, and a husband” (Mandela 623).

Within each part of the story, I discovered a man who listened, who took time to form opinions of life, society, and people; a man who heard out the opinions opposed to his own, evaluating whether or not holding to his opinions and fighting against those who held differing opinions (not wrong, but simply different) was a hill worth dying on. Rather, throughout his struggle—both in prison and out of it—he seemed to keep in mind what was most important: the liberation of the oppressed people of South Africa by the oppressors.

In my short time on earth, I have noticed, in particular, that I am often willing to say that the voice of each individual in every community matters—whether or not I agree with that voice. But, listening to understand the voice I don’t agree with (or don’t believe I will agree with, before they have even spoken) is far more difficult. It is certainly easier to listen to understand the voices I already believe I will agree with, than to listen to the voices of the people I don’t want to agree with—before listening to them.

While reading a story about one man’s struggle for freedom in his own country was incredible in itself, the people I have met, and the stories I have heard are teaching me something I did not realize I needed to be taught. I am reminded of the dangers of thinking too highly of oneself or not listening to the thoughts and ideas of another human, because I have preconceived notions about what they might say. I am reminded of humility, and of the willingness to sacrifice myself and my agenda for the sake of others—for the sake of peace.

In many ways, I am reminded of Christ; I am reminded of his willingness to listen to others, to practice humility and self-sacrifice for the liberation of the world. While Mandela was by no means a perfect individual, I do imagine him as one who was selfless in many ways, humble, and willing to fight for what he believed to be right and in the midst of all that: there was a man willing to listen, even if he disagreed with what was being said, he was still willing to listen.

Further, since turning the last page, signaling the end of Mandela’s long walk to freedom, I find myself reflecting on my own walk. I wonder, to what am I walking towards? Freedom as well, perhaps? Or something else? I am not sure I will know until I reach it. Meanwhile, may I be willing to always listen to those who think differently than I do; may I be, as St. Frances has already articulated, seeking to understand, not simply to be understood.

A question for reflection: Why do you think some people believe racial reconciliation to be important and some people do not?


[i] Google dictionary.

[ii] ‘Coloured’ is the term used during the apartheid era to distinguish between individuals of mixed race and individuals who were fully one race. This also helped with the distributing of privileges and opportunities, as well as who to arrest. For a while, during the apartheid era, sexual intercourse between blacks and whites was considered illegal.

[iii] These meetings were for the purpose of figuring out a way to have a free and just society for all, rather than for a small few.


About the Author: My name is Alayna Wort and I am currently in South Africa studying abroad. One of the courses I am taking is South African literature, where I read books all written by south African authors. Over the course of this semester, I am writing and submitting articles to be published by The Crossings. Some of you, the readers, may have already read the books I am writing the articles on, some of you may not have. Either way, I encourage you to reflect on the concepts within the articles, to engage in dialogue with peers and mentors about the content, to assert whether you agree or disagree with what I say, to ask questions, to seek understanding of those perspectives that do not make sense to you. I am titling this project: “One Woman’s Road to Holistic Reconciliation.”


Read the Rest of the Collection:

  1. Right or Easy

  2. COVID-19

  3. Reorientation and Transformation

  4. A Long Walk to Understanding

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