Long Walk

In 2009, the General Council of the United Nations declared 18th July to be Mandela Day. What on earth has that got to do with the writers and illustrators of SCBWI BI ?

As an inspiration on many levels, a great deal, I would say. I hope these monthly pieces present unexpected features to prompt new approaches in your work. So I read up and found interesting nuggets such as 'Nelson' Mandela was not called that as a child.

His given name was Rohlilahla - which means trouble-maker!

Zulu kraal near Umlazi

He was a cattle boy in a kraal, tending the beasts and largely living outside - until he went to school at seven. That's where the 'Nelson' was given to him by his teacher - as was the custom. At college, he enjoyed long-distance running and boxing, and later took up ballroom dancing and amateur dramatics alongside his studies.

When he found out he was supposed to have an arranged marriage he ran away. He then found a job in a law firm - and studied by night through a correspondence course. At University he was the only black student in his faculty. He became friends with  many European, Jewish, and Indian students.

As an activist against Apartheid rule in South Africa, he remained free for a long while - often disguised as a chauffeur. One of his nicknames was 'The Black Pimpernel.'

The much disguised hero of this adventure rescues people from the guillotine in the French Revolution.

When at last the authorities caught and imprisoned him, he spent 18 years on Robben Island. He was sentenced to hard labour. He had to work quarrying lime - and was forbidden to wear sunglasses in the fierce South African sunshine. This permanently damaged his eyesight.

He spent a further 6 years at Pollsmoor. A more enlightened commanding officer allowed him to create a roof garden there. After that, 2 more years at Victor Verser Prison where he had his 70th birthday in 1988. He was released on 11th February 1990 - a very Long Walk to Freedom for him.

The 1994 South African flag has six colours moving together to represent everyone working for unity. Mandela worked for including gay rights in the new constitution

The new post-Apartheid South Africa elected him President from 1994 - 1999, and then he retired. He kept up his tastes for archaeology,  boxing, Indian cuisine and batik shirts until his death on 5th December 2013, at the age of 95. Ten days of official mourning followed.

Madiba shirt - Indonesian batik much favoured by President Mandela. ( Madiba is an honorary title adopted by all members of his clan.)

Now that is a life. You don't get much more triumphant story arcs than prisoner to president. I feel I don't need to say much more - but for the sake of completeness, here are some ideas that might stimulate.


  • what alternative names might a character have?
  • would they be accurate - or ironic?
  • how is/was their childhood spent ?
  • what animals and landscapes feature?
  • do they have any unexpected combinations of interests?
  • what would they do if their people's custom expected something they couldn't bear?
  • do they receive unanticipated support from people they might expect to be enemies?
  • could disguise play a part in their story?
  • how do their enemies treat them?
  • any lasting effects from this?
  • if they forgive, where could that magnanimity come from?
  • what aspects of their appearance might become typical and well-known?
  • a renowned person might have myths about them - how does that affect your character? (say, if the MC is brought up in the shadow of that relative)

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