San Antonio, Texas
I am a South African born American citizen. About seven years ago, I moved to the United States and found myself at Our Lady of the Lake University in the Graduate Psychology program. It was there that I met Dr. Harlene Anderson, which was a wonderful experience for a student like me who uses collaborative practice daily in conversations with clients. Of course, when you consider my birthplace, I welcomed Dr. Anderson’s offer to write about my reflections after reading a Long Walk to Freedom, the autobiography of Nelson Mandela. The book, an international best seller, does not disappoint. Although I spent the majority of my life to date in South Africa and was educated about Mandela’s history including his long fight for freedom throughout grade school, I was not prepared for the honest and emotional story of a great man who suffered injustices that I cannot imagine. What is interesting is that I can now plainly see that the reason I cannot imagine the world Mandela inhabited is because of his tireless fight to give all the people of South Africa a constitution protecting and providing the rights I have grown to trust.
My first memories of Mandela are all festive. For whatever reason as a young girl I remember South Africa’s then president often dancing in celebration wearing brightly colored shirts. I was too young to understand the politics when Mandela became president and although I had questions when I was older the fear and oppression my parents would try to convey seemed surreal. South Africa is now and while I was growing up, a beautiful place with beautiful people. Each person is respected no matter his or her race, sex, age, or culture. In a Long Walk to Freedom, the South Africa where Mandela was growing up was an altogether different place.
The autobiography begins with a brief but colorful account of Mandela’s birth in July 1918 and his fascinating childhood. As a postmodern student, learning about culture is important but the vitality of a culturally sensitive clinician, for me, exists in an appreciation for culture. Reading about Mandela’s tribal upbringing and heritage was an opportunity to immerse myself in a culture different from my own. I always find that when learning about another person’s culture there are more similarities with my own than I would have previously thought. When talking with clients, I always remain curious about culture and openly ask questions. I know from experience that many psychology programs emphasize the importance of simply knowing about other cultures. As a practicum student in a postmodern program, supervisors emphasize the importance of not knowing. Simply, not knowing allows me the freedom to truly learn about a client in a way that taking an expert role will never allow. While reading a Long Walk to Freedom, I frequently found myself appreciating the rich cultural beliefs and practices of Xhosa people. If you ever visit South Africa, a standout attribute of the majority of the people is the instantaneous welcome into their country, homes, and families. To quote Mandela’s words, “In African culture, the sons and daughters of one’s aunts and uncles are considered brothers and sisters…”
As the autobiography progresses, the reader is invited to share the ups and downs inherent in life. Mandela speaks openly about his opinions and how those opinions change as he grows. I appreciated his candor and thoughtful writing, which resembles more a conversation about life than an autobiography of one man. I believe that therapeutic practice can follow the same simplicity. Collaborative practice emphasizes the sharing in dialogue and an equal participation while talking with another. My most pressing thought throughout the book was a desire to have had a conversation with Mandela at any time during his political career. I would have learned so much more about the meaning for the author during the events of the African National Congress’s (ANC) efforts to abolish Apartheid. Although one gains much knowledge about the time, it seems that Mandela was so diligent and hardworking that his travels far and wide were filled with effort and planning no matter the setbacks. As the reader I literally felt the urgency and fatigue that Mandela endured. At the same time, I was moved on many occasions during the book, and truly hope that enough people have conveyed to Mandela that the powerful emotionality expressed in his book was not lost on them because it was not lost on me. Reading about the Sharpeville shootings, the cruel injustices the freedom fighters survived, and the losses Mandela suffered while isolated from his own family stirred strong sentiments. As an avid reader I often struggle to separate my career from my reading enjoyment; I constantly wonder about this or that and long to ask questions and to engage in the reciprocity inherent in conversation. Language is an essential aspect of my understanding of people, knowledge, and therapy. Mandela appreciated this and in his own words wrote, “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…”
Many already know that Mandela was eventually imprisoned after multiple attempts by the government in June 1964 before his release in 1990. During the 27 years Mandela was imprisoned he spent some of that time writing this book. I have been to Robben Island. Now, the island is a wasteland of small shrubs and sand with two structures (that I remember) the prison and a museum store of sorts with information leaflets and items for purchase. The boat ride to the island is about 30 minutes if memory serves from the Waterfront Harbor in Cape Town. Once the boat docked I remember that I couldn’t wait to get back on. I love museums but the island has an unsettling feel. Now people from around the world visit to see Mandela’s tiny iron cell with a stone floor, ceiling, and walls with bars for a door and a window to the outside. In Mandela’s own words “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones…” In fact, Mandela’s recollections of Robben Island are far fairer than mine. Mandela’s imprisonment was a long and brutal one. What encouraged me through those chapters was the unyielding determination of a man with a fighter’s spirit. Mandela wrote “ 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”. During Mandela’s story of his imprisonment I caught myself smiling at his determination and unyielding commitment to the law; Mandela still practiced law for his own and his fellow prisoners’ rights. This struck a chord with me because I was a law student before I was a psychology student; what changed my mind was the difference between advocating for people versus empowering others to advocate for themselves. I think Mandela manages both.
For many people in the psychology profession what is most pressing is always what is ‘wrong’ with a client. To those people I would urge them to read this book because it reestablished my most pressing outlook: what is right with a person. The strength of this one man to continue to fight, to not give up hope, and to rise above so many years of isolation is without a doubt one of the most amazing stories I have come to know.
The best thing about this book is the ending. In 1984 after a transfer to a maximum-security prison in Cape Town, Mandela writes about a visit with his wife and daughters: “It was a moment I had dreamed about a thousand times…I held her to me for what seemed like an eternity…It had been twenty-one years since I had even touched my wife’s hand”. Only a few years before Mandela’s release from prison, South Africa was in trouble; multiple trade embargos, emigrating citizens, and a state of emergency, the president at the time, Botha, began to negotiate with Mandela and the ANC. Later, after Botha’s resignation a new president, F.W. De Klerk met with Mandela with a refreshingly liberal stance. On February 11, 1990, Mandela was finally released from prison. Four years later, Mandela was legally permitted to vote for the first time and voted for the ANC and his own presidency. On May 10, 1994 Mandela was sworn in as the first African president of South Africa. In his words “ We have, at last, achieved political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender, and other discrimination”. The most powerful message in this outstanding autobiography is the idea of human connection: People are connected to one another in a beautifully simple way because we share the same make-up and because we are all in this world together. Mandela wrote, “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…”
On the cover of my copy of a Long Walk to Freedom are the words of the Boston Sunday Globe, “…should be read by every person alive” and I agree wholeheartedly. As a postmodern student the awe-inspiring struggle of one man, which speaks to the certainty that there is no certainty and no matter one’s trials, each person has the inherent strength within to overcome the unthinkable. In my very short career as a therapist in training certain experiences stand out to me and motivate me to think about my practice in a different and I hope improved way. This book was an experience. I have learned that sometimes simply listening motivates change. Listening with care stimulates my ability to understand and discover my own meanings with self-talk. Dr. Harlene Anderson taught me how the combination of both is transformative. My inner dialogue after reading this book and thereby really listening to Mandela’s story is revealed in this reflection. I would like to explain and end with one last quote from a particularly heartbreaking moment in the book where Mandela explains this powerful combination for change, “He said nothing, but only held my hand. I know don’t how long he remained with me. There is nothing that one man can say to another at such a time”.
 Mandela, Nelson. 1994. Long walk to freedom: The autobiography of nelson mandela. London: Little, Brown.
Our Lady of the Lake University
San Antonio, Texas