Mandela on the Drive to the Free State

I have been listening to Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom as an aid to sleep (aargh! jet lag!).  In a fog between wake and sleep, I heard the description below of the Johannesburg-Free State drive from Mandela’s perspective, the same drive I did on Sunday.  More on my impressions of the Free State, Bloemfontein, and the university coming soon…

In Johannesburg, I had become a man of the city.  I wore smart suits, I drove a colossal Oldsmobile and I knew my way around the back alleys of the city.  I commuted daily to a downtown office, but in fact I remained a country boy at heart, and there was nothing that lifted my spirits as much as blue skies, the open veld, and green grass.

In September [1952], with my bans ended, I decided to take advantage of my freedom and get a respite from the city.  I took on a case in the little town of Villiers, in the Orange Free State [now, just the Free State].  The drive to the Orange Free State from Johannesburg used to take several hours, and I set out on my journey from Orlando [in Soweto] at 3 a.m., which has always been my favorite hour for departure.  I am an early riser anyway, and at 3 a.m., the roads are empty and quiet, and one can be alone with one’s thoughts.  I like to see the coming of dawn, the change between night and day, which is always majestic. It was also a convenient hour of departure because the police were usually nowhere to be found.

The province of the Orange Free State has always had a magical effect on me.  Though some of the most racist elements of the white population call the Free State their home, with its flecked, dusty landscape as far as the eye can see, the great blue ceiling above, the endless stretches of yellow mielie fields, scrub and bushes, the Free State’s landscape gladdens my heart no matter what my mood.  When I am there, I feel like nothing can shut me in, that my thoughts can roam as far and wide as the horizons.


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