Long Walk to Freedom | Quotes from Nelson Mandela’s Autobiography


Long Walk to Freedom is the 1994 autobiography of Nelson Mandela, a man who went down the path of history as one of the greatest civil rights activists that had graced the global stage. The autobiography chronicles the story of Mandela right from birth, his childhood, his education, his aspirations, his practice as a lawyer, his involvement in politics, his treason trial, to his long years in prison.

The late Nelson Mandela was among many other things a politician, anti-apartheid activist, lawyer, freedom fighter, elder statesman, and conflict mediator.

He was born on 18 July, 1918 at Mvezo in South Africa. Mandela spent the most part of his youth fighting the evil machinations of the apartheid in South Africa, a cause which is a more institutionalised variant of the racial segregation civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr were fighting against elsewhere in the North American continent in the mid-fifties of the twentieth century.


In his autobiography, Mandela situates the place and fate of the black South African citizens in the following excerpts:

“It was a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the streets past eleven, a crime not to have a pass book and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live.”
“In South Africa, to be poor and black was normal, to be poor and white was a tragedy.”

At the height of his activism, Mandela was convicted for his conviction alongside other ANC leaders like Walter Sisulu, and Ahmed Kathrada. He was served what seemed a lenient sentence of life imprisonment.

He was then forty-four years of age. Mandela would spend twenty-seven years in prison, eighteen of which were on Robben Island. He would emerge from prison at an advanced age of seventy-one and would help steer South Africa to a true and all inclusive democracy. He assumed office as the first democratic president of South Africa on 10 May 1994, a position he held for five years. Nelson Mandela died on 5th of December, 2013 at the age of ninety-five.

In this post, I have painstakingly compiled quotes from Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, quotes which are a summation of the beliefs, aspirations, tribulations, and the life history of a great man whose name resonated throughout the world, whose contributions to humanity can not be easily forgotten in the annals of history, and whose name is synonymous with freedom.

I have indicated with double quotes those expressions that are not his but are however used in the autobiography. Enjoy!

(1) Nurture, rather than nature, is the primary molder of personality.

(2) To humiliate another person is to make him suffer an unnecessarily cruel fate.

(3) Virtue and generosity will be rewarded in ways that one cannot know.

(4) Children from poor homes often find themselves beguiled by a host of new temptations when suddenly confronted by great wealth.

(5) Democracy meant all men were to be heard, and a decision was taken together as a people. Majority rule was a foreign notion. A minority was not to be crushed by a majority.

(6) “A leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” (Jongintaba)

(7) A boy may cry; a man conceals his pain.

(8) It was not lack of ability that limited my people, but lack of opportunity.

(9) “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Who will guard the guardians themselves?)

(10) There is little favorable to be said about poverty, but it was often an incubator of true friendship. Many people will appear to befriend you when you are wealthy, but precious few will do the same when you are poor. If wealth is a magnet, poverty is a kind of repellent. Yet, poverty often brings out the true generosity in others.

(11) Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their songs.

(12) The freedom struggle was not merely a question of making speeches, holding meetings, passing resolutions, and sending deputations, but of meticulous organization, militant mass action, and, above all, the willingness to suffer and sacrifice.

(13) A man is not a man until he has a house of his own.

(14) The repression of any one liberation group was repression against all liberation groups.

(15) In some ways, it is easier to be a dissident, for then one is without responsibility.

(16) Banning not only confines one physically, it imprisons one’s spirit. It induces a kind of psychological claustrophobia that makes one yearn not only for freedom of movement but spiritual escape. Banning was a dangerous game, for one was not shackled or chained behind bars; the bars were laws and regulations that could easily be violated and often were. One could slip away unseen for short periods of time and have the temporary illusion of freedom. The insidious effect of bans was that at a certain point one began to think that the oppressor was not without but within.

(17) To overthrow oppression has been sanctioned by humanity and is the highest aspiration of every free man.

(18) A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a certain point, one can only fight fire with fire.

(19) Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation.

(20) It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.

(21) Newspapers are only a poor shadow of reality; their information is important to a freedom fighter not because it reveals the truth, but because it discloses the biases and perceptions of both those who produce the paper and those who read it.

(22) The curious beauty of African music is that it uplifts even as it tells a sad tale. You may be poor, you may have only a ramshackle house, you may have lost your job, but that song gives you hope. African music is often about the aspirations of the African people, and it can ignite the political resolve of those who might otherwise be indifferent to politics. One merely has to witness the infectious singing at African rallies. Politics can be strengthened by music, but music has a potency that defies politics.

(23) The doors of the liberation struggle are open to all who choose to walk through them.

(24) A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.

(25) After one has been in prison, it is the small things that one appreciates: being able to take a walk whenever one wants, going into a shop and buying a newspaper, speaking or choosing to remain silent. The simple act of being able to control one’s person.

(26) When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.

(27) There is a streak of goodness in men that can be buried or hidden and then emerge unexpectedly.

(28) Poor people everywhere are more alike than they are different.

(29) A revolution is not just a question of pulling a trigger; its purpose is to create a fair and just society.

(30) Men, I think, are not capable of doing nothing, of saying nothing, of not reacting to injustice, of not protesting against oppression, of not striving for the good society and the good life in the ways they see it.

(31) Prison not only robs you of your freedom, it attempts to take away your identity. Everyone wears the same uniform, eats the same food, follows the same schedule. It is by definition a purely authoritarian state that tolerates no independence or individuality.

(32) “In confidence we lay our cause before the whole world. Whether we win or whether we die, freedom will rise in Africa like the sun from the morning clouds.” (Paul Kruger)

(33) During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

(34) No sacrifice was too great in the struggle for freedom.

(35) To be truly prepared for something, one must actually expect it. One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen.

(36) Losing a sense of time is an easy way to lose one’s grip and even one’s sanity.

(37) “In prison, the minutes can seem like years, but the years go by like minutes.” (Ahmed Kathrada)

(38) Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.

(39) Strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation; your spirit can be full even when your stomach is empty.

(40) Change is gradual and incremental, and when one lives in the midst of one’s family, one rarely notices differences in them. But when one doesn’t see one’s family for many years at a time, the transformation can be striking.

(41) Prison was a kind of crucible that tested a man’s character. Some men, under the pressure of incarceration, showed true mettle, while others revealed themselves as less than what they had appeared to be.

(42) All men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their heart is touched, they are capable of changing.

(43) Exercise dissipates tension, and tension is the enemy of serenity.

(44) To truly lead one’s people one must also truly know them.

(45) Education was the enemy of prejudice.

(46) There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way.

(47) Which man of honour will desert a lifelong friend at the insistence of a common opponent and still retain a measure of credibility with his people?

(48) Freedom without civility, freedom without the ability to live in peace, was not true freedom at all.

(49) Any house in which a man is free is a castle when compared to even the plushest prison.

(50) Take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea! Close down the death factories. End this war now!

(51) Many people felt life would change overnight after a free and democratic election, but that would be far from the case. Often, I said to crowds, “Do not expect to be driving a Mercedes the day after the election or swimming in your own backyard pool.” I told our supporters, “Life will not change dramatically, except that you will have increased your self-esteem and become a citizen in your own land. You must have patience. You might have to wait five years for results to show.” I challenged them; I did not patronize them: “If you want to continue living in poverty without clothes and food,” I told them, “then go and drink in the shebeens. But if you want better things, you must work hard. We cannot do it all for you; you must do it yourselves.”

(52) The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

(53) In every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

(54) Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.

(55) The oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow mindedness. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

(56) To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

(57) After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.

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