Dreaming as a Practice of Freedom

Although promoted as an autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom was in large part the work of a collective. The original manuscript was begun clandestinely in 1974, while Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island. He describes writing deep into the night and in the morning passing off finished sections to a handful of comrades who would add comments in the margins. Ahmed Kathrada, Mandela’s longtime friend and fellow prisoner, describes “an editorial board” of trusted ANC members who worked collectively on the original draft, which was then transcribed into microscopic print and smuggled off the island in 1976. Then in the 1990s, after Mandela’s release, the manuscript was adapted once again by an American journalist, Richard Stengel, with Kathrada and other advisors forming yet another collective to oversee the final editing process.1 Although the narrative is written in first person, the Nelson Mandela we encounter in the autobiography is very much a persona in the ancient sense—a mask worn by a dramatic character in a play.

In this respect, Long Walk to Freedom belongs to the genre of what Philip Holden calls “national autobiography.” These narratives work to ally the life of a leader with the process of decolonization. Other examples include Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth and Lee Kuan Yew’s The Singapore Story.2 This particular variation on the bildungsroman helps shape the new nation using the material of an imagined individual rather than an “imagined community,” as Benedict Anderson famously proposed. The exemplary figure provides a model for the citizen to identify with and an example to follow. And for the newly democratic South Africa, this imagined individual was Nelson Mandela.

Long Walk to Freedom does not, therefore, belong to the order of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations or Augustine’s Confessions. This autobiography is not a book of personal thoughts, written to oneself. It does not reveal the inner life of the icon, even as it trades on and stimulates the powerful desire to come to know something of Madiba’s private struggles. Indeed, as any number of accounts show, Mandela was not introspective about his emotional life. He often became frustrated—and sometimes even angry—when prompted to discuss his feelings.3

It might be tempting, in this respect, to cast Mandela’s recurring nightmare as a rare glimpse into the great leader’s otherwise impenetrable internal world. However, it is more in keeping with Madiba’s own sensibility to treat this disclosure as simply another iteration of his political practice. Which is to say, recording and reporting his dream-life was just one more means to regulate and transform the constituent force of the political regime, a means to establish and preserve his own sense of sovereignty against apartheid’s imposing force. Dream-life was one more venue Mandela used to exercise his indivisible sense of freedom.

Attending to one’s dream-life as a form of political practice is not so much a new idea as a very old one. As the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault has shown, the ancient Greeks commonly exercised their civic liberty through a series of practical exercises—including dream interpretation. The exercises were sometimes formal practices, such as pedagogical dialogue and examining one’s conscience (which would later become confession under Christianity), but they also included everyday gestures, such as style of dress, appearance, and gait. Near the end of his career, Foucault began a concerted investigation of these ancient “techniques of self” to grasp how the individual subject is able to constitute herself in a way that is not reducible to external forms of domination. The project was ultimately left unfinished at the time of Foucault’s death, but it nevertheless opened up a different dimension of political subjectivity, a new approach to thinking about the territory of political life that drew from the inside of thought.4

One way that Foucault attempted to articulate this other dimension of political life was through a distinction he made between the process of liberation and what he called “practices of freedom”:

When a colonized people attempts to liberate itself from its colonizers, this is a process of liberation in the strict sense. But we know very well, and moreover in this specific case, that this process of liberation is not in itself sufficient to define the practices of freedom that will still be needed if this people, this society, and these individuals are to be able to define admissible and acceptable forms of existence or political society.5

This distinction directly echoes the position Mandela takes at the end of his autobiography, that closing note of hesitation in which the leader troubles the idea that freedom was achieved in South Africa with the advent of democracy. Neither thinker downplays the significance of liberation, but neither sees such victories as sufficient: liberation cannot define or even guide all the practical forms of freedom that will be needed for a viable life. As Mandela puts it, liberation is “the right not to be oppressed,” but this is only the first step on a much harder and longer road: “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”6

In the ancient world, one of the most common ways to practice freedom in an everyday sense was through dream interpretation. Foucault’s last work, The Care of the Self, opens with an extended discussion of the ancient methods of oneirocriticism. Gods gave advice, guidance, and, sometimes, explicit commands through dreams. For the ancients, these events constituted a form of guidance, and a high value was set on their decipherment. It was necessary to consult the countless professionals of nocturnal images, and it was also good to be able to interpret these signs for oneself, whether one was rich or poor, old or young, man or woman, private citizen or public official. Learning how to decipher these experiences was necessary to one’s freedom, not because it somehow enabled one to get the better of destiny, but rather so one could weather the sufferings that would inevitably come. As one ancient writer put it, “when disasters come altogether and unexpectedly, they strike the spirit with so severe and sudden a blow that they overwhelm it; while if they are anticipated, the mind, by dwelling on them beforehand, is able little by little to turn the edge of sorrow.”7

Dreaming provided a means for the dreamer to reflect on such disasters and to contemplate her social existence. For the ancients, interpreting these nocturnal events was not a narcissistic exercise of introspection but an everyday means to carry out an examination of one’s social moorings. Dreams display one’s “style of activity,” the position one tends to take with regard to others, indeed, one’s larger way of being.8 Reflecting on these thought-events provides a means to discover and reaffirm one’s relation to oneself and to the world. Similar to the way external power relations are imposed through repeated coercive action, so the relation to oneself, which can bend these power relations, is established by practical exercises of freedom—everyday practices that a person might use to hone her relationship with herself.

Mandela’s recurring nightmare was not a singular avowal in this respect. He regularly reported his dreams to his circle of comrades in prison; he shared them in letters to his intimates; he recorded them in his notebooks; he even jotted them down on the annual desk calendars that he used in the period from 1976 to 1989:


  • Begin reading “Bury my heart” Dee Brown; sent letter U[niversity of] London

23 DECEMBER 1976

  • Zindzi’s birthday

17 JANUARY 1977

  • Gossiping about others is certainly a vice, a virtue when about oneself.

20 JANUARY 1977

  • Dreamt of Kgatho falling into ditch and injuring leg

21 FEBRUARY 1977

  • Raid by approximately 15 warders under W/O Barnard9

These occasional entries represent another forum in which Mandela practiced his unique brand of civil disobedience, a quotidian technique he used to reinsert himself into the human condition. Rather than treat his inner landscape as somehow irrelevant to his political life, Mandela constantly reinvented himself by turning the immediate condition of his unfreedom back upon itself. By drawing from and nurturing that dimension of political subjectivity that is irreducible to the power relations imposed by the state, he continually found ways to fold the force of apartheid, even as it remained a force.

This is one more lesson that the great leader bequeathed to us: our relationship to others ultimately begins with the relationship one has with one’s self. Attending to our dream-life is among our most intimate means of tending this relationship, a technique of self-determination, a daily means to practice self-governance, indeed, a paragon of freedom.