The drive to my parent’s house in Ohio from my house in Wisconsin takes about 9 hours. This is a long car ride, but completely bearable as I am a huge fan of audiobooks. However, David and I don’t always agree on what the right audiobook is. At this point in our relationship, I look for Audie award-winners in our shared favorite genres: History, Classics, Fantasy, and Non-Fiction. That’s how I stumbled upon Mandela: An Audio History.
Winner of the 2015 Audie for Audiobook of the Year and Best Original Work, I knew I was in for something great. This powerful history of apartheid features over 50 interviews with South African activists, politicians, students, educators, protesters, and more. There is power in hearing words directly from those involved in the entire cycle of apartheid, from its birth in 1944 to the establishment of democracy in 1994. Originally created as a 5 part series, content is broken up as follows:
- The Birth of Apartheid (1944-1960)
- The Underground Movement (1960-1964)
- Robben Island (1964-1976)
- State of Emergency (1976-1990)
- Democracy (1990-1994)
As a student, I barely studied apartheid. I remember in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the first democratic president of South Africa, but at the time I didn’t understand why it was important. I’m certain we talked about it, but my little brain didn’t hold on to that information. I knew he was a great speaker, but that was about it. Then, in my Advanced Placement US History course, apartheid was a blip in our economics study when America stopped trade with South Africa as revolution was filing into the streets.
Listening to this audio history is just another reminder of how much is happening in the world (or has happened) that I am ignorant to. The most powerful moments for me occurred in parts 2 and 3. I cried listening to audio recordings of the June 16th, 1976 student protests in Soweto. Listening to the gunshots and the panicked children was terrifying. Coupled with the first-person recollections… I can’t even imagine walking out of school in peace and find you and your friends are being shot. Shot by the people you thought would protect you. Afterall, you’re just kids, right? This is just a peaceful protest…
In Part 3, State of Emergency, we heard about the Guerrilla soldiers and the international attention South Africa was getting. The way the audio is layered on top of each other was incredibly powerful. Things came to a head when a radio broadcaster was suddenly cut-off mid-interview during a protest turned riot turned battle. It is unclear whether he survived or not, but the point was made.
Overall, I found this to be the story of Mandela’s life and impact in South Africa, but with an appropriate focus on apartheid. Yes, I learned about why Mandela decided to fight against apartheid, how he decided to fight against it, his trial for treason, his time in prison, his release, and his election to become President. However, I also was able to whet my appetite around the origins of apartheid, the fuels to the fire, the forcing of Afrikaans as a language in schools, student protests, freedom fighters, how the struggle against apartheid continued with Mandela in prison, and the eventual collapse of the apartheid system. This isn’t a comprehensive history, by any means. However, I felt like I was able to really understand how something so terrible came to be and the major events that transpired to wipe it away.
I loved the format. As I mentioned, it was extremely powerful to hear first-person accounts of what happened. The integration of music also pulled things together. As a musician myself, I felt that hearing the songs of rebellion and revolution really tied things together. However, I struggled often to understand what people were saying. I think this wasn’t due to accents, but due to poor audio mixing. Sometimes the background music/news clips would overpower many of the tones of the speaker’s voice. It was frustrating to have to rewind regularly to catch statements, particularly since it was obvious this was added audio.
I also really want to have more depth to this audiobook. I know there were hundreds of hours of audio taken originally– It would have taken years to compile, but this could have easily been a three-hour audio history. I think I might have enjoyed that even more. Or, perhaps a supplement to this audio history. There are tons of books on Mandela and the apartheid, but something to pair nicely with this, other than the transcript that came with it (which I referenced many times to understand the words!).
I recommend this audiobook to anyone who needs an introduction to apartheid and the rise of Nelson Mandela.
(For the record: If you can define apartheid, or identify Nelson Mandela as a President of South Africa, and that’s it, well, you need to listen to this.)