Top 5 Books on Nelson Mandela and 10 He Recommended

The Best Books on Nelson Mandela and Books He Recommended Reading

There are countless books on Nelson Mandela, and it comes with good reason, after all, he is widely celebrated for being the leader of the movement that ended South African apartheid and one of the greatest freedom fighters of all time. He was South Africa’s first black head of state and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election, and with said power, he shifted his government’s focus to dismantling the legacy of apartheid by tackling institutionalized racism and fostering racial reconciliation.

Following two years in and out of prison for “treason” and then leaving the country “illegally”, in 1964 Mandela was put on trial again on charges of sabotage, for which he was convicted along with several other ANC leaders and sentenced to life in prison. He’d serve 27 years behind bars, split between Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison. Amid growing domestic and international pressure and fears of racial civil war, President F. W. de Klerk finally released him in 1990.

“When we read, we are able to travel to many places, meet many people and understand the world,” he once said, acknowledging a mental exercise that enabled him to venture beyond the decades-long confinement of his jail cell.

Reading clearly played a profound role in molding Nelson Mandela as a person, and furthermore, this favorite educational activity of his must have had something to do with the spirited – and liberating for that matter – approach he took to life.

Therefore, in order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of history’s greatest men to the pinnacle of societal contribution, we’ve compiled a list that starts with 5 books on Nelson Mandela and ends with 10 books that he read himself and would certainly recommend to others as well.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was one of the great moral and political leaders of his time: an international hero whose lifelong dedication to the fight against racial oppression in South Africa won him the Nobel Peace Prize and the presidency of his country. After his triumphant release in 1990 from more than a quarter-century of imprisonment, Mandela was at the center of the most compelling and inspiring political drama in the world.

As president of the African National Congress and head of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, he was instrumental in moving the nation toward multiracial government and majority rule. He is still revered everywhere as a vital force in the fight for human rights and racial equality.

Long Walk to Freedom is his moving and exhilarating autobiography, destined to take its place among the finest memoirs of history’s greatest figures. Here for the first time, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela told the extraordinary story of his life – an epic of struggle, setback, renewed hope, and ultimate triumph.

Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela

A singular international publishing event, Conversations with Myself draws on Mandela’s personal archive of never-before-seen materials to offer unique access to the private world of an incomparable world leader. Journals kept on the run during the anti-apartheid struggle of the early 1960s; diaries and draft letters written in Robben Island and other South African prisons during his twenty-seven years of incarceration; notebooks from the post-apartheid transition; private recorded conversations; speeches and correspondence written during his presidency.

An intimate journey from Mandela’s first stirrings of political consciousness to his galvanizing role on the world stage, Conversations with Myself illuminates a heroic life forged on the front lines of the struggle for freedom and justice.

Mandela by Anthony Sampson

Now Anthony Sampson, who has known Mandela since 1951 and has been a close observer of South Africa’s political life for the last fifty years, has produced the first authorized biography, the most informed and comprehensive portrait to date of a man whose dazzling image has been difficult to penetrate.

With unprecedented access to Mandela’s private papers (including his prison memoir, long thought to have been lost), meticulous research, and hundreds of interviews – from Mandela himself to prison warders on Robben Island, from Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo to Winnie Mandela and F. W. de Klerk, and many others intimately connected to Mandela’s story – Sampson has composed an enlightening and necessary story of the man behind the myth.

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela

Organized chronologically and divided by the four venues in which he was held as a sentenced prisoner, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela begins in Pretoria Local Prison, where Mandela was held following his 1962 trial. In 1964, Mandela was taken to Robben Island Prison, where a stark existence was lightened only by visits and letters from family. After eighteen years, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, a large complex outside of Cape Town with beds and better food, but where he and four of his comrades were confined to a rooftop cell, apart from the rest of the prison population. Finally, Mandela was taken to Victor Verster Prison in 1988, where he was held until his release on February 11, 1990.

Whether providing unwavering support to his also-imprisoned wife or outlining a human-rights philosophy that resonates today, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela reveals the heroism of a man who refused to compromise his moral values in the face of extraordinary punishment. Ultimately, these letters position Mandela as one of the most inspiring figures of the twentieth century.

Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years by Nelson Mandela

In 1994, Nelson Mandela became the first president of a democratic South Africa. From the outset, he was committed to serving only a single five-year term. During his presidency, he and his government ensured that all of South Africa’s citizens became equal before the law, and he laid the foundation for turning a country riven by centuries of colonialism and apartheid into a fully functioning democracy.

Dare Not Linger is the story of Mandela’s presidential years, drawing heavily on the memoir he began to write as he prepared to leave office, but was unable to finish. Now the acclaimed South African writer Mandla Langa has completed the task, using Mandela’s unfinished draft, detailed notes that Mandela made as events were unfolding, and a wealth of unseen archival material.

Playing the Enemy by John Carlin

Read the book that inspired the Academy Award and Golden Globe winning 2009 film INVICTUS featuring Morgan Freeman and Matt Daymon, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Beginning in a jail cell and ending in a rugby tournament – the true story of how the most inspiring charm offensive in history brought South Africa together. After being released from prison and winning South Africa’s first free election, Nelson Mandela presided over a country still deeply divided by fifty years of apartheid.

His plan was ambitious if not far-fetched: use the national rugby team, the Springboks-long an embodiment of white-supremacist rule-to embody and engage a new South Africa as they prepared to host the 1995 World Cup. The string of wins that followed not only defied the odds, but capped Mandela’s miraculous effort to bring South Africans together again in a hard-won, enduring bond.

Books Nelson Mandela Recommends Reading

Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer

This is the moving story of the unforgettable Rosa Burger, a young woman from South Africa cast in the mold of a revolutionary tradition. Rosa tries to uphold her heritage handed on by martyred parents while still carving out a sense of self. Although it is wholly of today, Burger’s Daughter can be compared to those 19th century Russian classics that make a certain time and place come alive, and yet stand as universal celebrations of the human spirit. Nadine Gordimer, winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born and lives in South Africa.

Source: Although it was banned in South Africa during his imprisonment, among other so-labeled “political” books, Nelson Mandela managed to have this one smuggled to his cell on Robben Island, where he read it and found it captured the truth of his nation at the time.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joad – driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.

A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America. At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s powerful landmark novel is perhaps the most American of American Classics.

Source: “I read many American novels, and recall especially John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in which I found many similarities between the plight of the migrant workers in that novel and our own laborers and farm workers,” Mandela states in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace broadly focuses on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the most well-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman who intrigues both men.

As Napoleon’s army invades, Tolstoy brilliantly follows characters from diverse backgrounds – peasants and nobility, civilians and soldiers – as they struggle with the problems unique to their era, their history, and their culture. A treasure among books Nelson Mandela recommends, as the novel progresses, these characters transcend their specificity, becoming some of the most moving – and human – figures in world literature.

Source: “One book that I returned to many times,” Mandela says, “was Tolstoy’s great work, War and Peace. (Although the word war was in the title, this book was permitted [inside prison].)”

Commando by Deneys Reitz

Deneys Reitz was 17 when the Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899. Reitz describes that he had no hatred of the British people, but “as a South African, one had to fight for one’s country.” Reitz had learned to ride, shoot and swim almost as soon as he could walk, and the skills and endurance he had acquired during those years were to be made full use of during the war. He fought with different Boer Commandos, where each Commando consisted mainly of farmers on horseback, using their own horses and guns.

Commando describes the tumult through the eyes of a warrior in the saddle. Reitz was fortunate to be present at nearly every one of the major battles of the war. Commando is a straightforward narrative that describes an extraordinary adventure and brings us a vivid, unforgettable picture of mobile guerrilla warfare, especially later in the war as General Smuts and men like Reitz fought on, braving heat, cold, rain, lack of food, clothing and boots, tiring horses.

Source: “In Commando, by Deneys Reitz, I read of the unconventional gorilla tactics of the Boer generals during the Anglo-Boer war,” Mandela recalls.

Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow

Journalist Edgar Snow was the first Westerner to meet Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Communist leaders in 1936 – and out of his up-close experience came this historical account, one of the most important books about the remarkable events that would shape not only the future of Asia, but also the future of the world.

Source: Regarding this favorite among Chinese history books, Nelson Mandela notes, “In Edgar Snow’s brilliant Red Star Over China, I saw that it was Mao’s determination and nontraditional thinking that led him to victory.”

The Revolt by Menachem Begin

Menachem Begin was a participant in the major events in modern Jewish history: the evolution of Zionism, resistance to the Nazi genocide, Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe, struggle against British rule in Palestine, founding of the state of Israel and the peace treaty with Egypt, which won him a Nobel Prize.

Begin was a controversial figure, commander of the Irgun, an underground Army which fought against the British Mandatory regime in Palestine. He was lionized by some, demonized by others, but his love of the Jewish people and his heroism in the service of their national homeland were never questioned.

The Revolt is Begin’s account of the Irgun’s campaign against the British Mandatory Regime and its role in the 1948 War of Independence. Told without partisan shading and buttressed by official documents and correspondence it offers a truthful historical record of that momentous period.

Source: “I read The Revolt by Menachem Begin and was encouraged by the fact that the Israeli leader had led a guerrilla force in a country with neither mountains nor forests, a situation similar to our own,” Mandel explains.

On War by Carl von Clausewitz

A timeless classic among books Nelson Mandela recommends, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War is the most significant attempt in Western history to understand war, both in its internal dynamics and as an instrument of policy. Since the work’s first appearance in 1832, it has been read throughout the world, and has stimulated generations of soldiers, political leaders, and intellectuals. First published in 1976 and revised in 1984, Michael Howard and Peter Paret’s Princeton edition of Clausewitz’s classic work has itself achieved classic status and is widely regarded as the best translation and standard edition of On War in English.

Source: “Clausewitz’s central thesis, that war was a continuation of diplomacy by other means, dovetailed with my own instincts,” Mandela says.

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Communist Manifesto, originally titled Manifesto of the Communist Party, is a short 1848 book written by the German Marxist political theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It has since been recognized as one of the world’s most influential political manuscripts. Commissioned by the Communist League, it laid out the League’s purposes and program. It presents an analytical approach to the class struggle (historical and present) and the problems of capitalism, rather than a prediction of communism’s potential future forms.

The book contains Marx and Engels’ Marxist theories about the nature of society and politics, that in their own words, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” It also briefly features their ideas for how the capitalist society of the time would eventually be replaced by socialism, and then eventually communism.

Source: Regarding the first among communistic books, Mandela says, “while I was stimulated by The Communist Manifesto, I was exhausted by Das Kapitol. But I found myself strongly drawn to the idea of a classless society, which, to my mind, was similar to traditional African culture where life was shared and communal.”

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

One of Shakespeare’s “dark comedies,” Measure for Measure is as noteworthy for its fascinating political and social implications as for its compelling characters: a duke masquerading as a monk, a would-be nun ordered to sacrifice her chastity to save her brother’s life, and a self-righteous courtier, professing his incorruptibility while concealing a depraved private life.

In this engrossing drama set in 16th-century Vienna, Duke Vincentio attempts to enforce the city’s long-ignored morality laws, which results in a death sentence for Claudio, a young man accused of seducing and impregnating his fiancée. Isabella, his sister, attempts to gain a pardon for him, but refuses when she is asked to exchange her virtue for her brother’s life.

Claudio eventually is freed and utter tragedy is averted, as Shakespeare explores with force and sensitivity the basis of good government, public and private morality, and the balancing of justice and mercy, among other themes.

Source: When faced with the possibility of the death penalty, Mandela found solace in the words of a smuggled Shakespeare collection: “Be absolute for death; for either death or life shall be the sweeter.”


If you enjoyed this guide to books Nelson Mandela recommends, be sure to check out our list of Books On and Recommended by Albert Einstein!