Mandela

The Authorised Biography - by Anthony Sampson

Published 1999 by Harper Collins pp 676 ISBN 0006388450

Dawn was just breaking on the outskirts of Durban, South Africa when Nelson Mandela, flanked by scores of armed soldiers, police officers and the world's media, walked up a hill to the cemetery behind Ohlange High School. The day was April 27, 1994, and Mandela had chosen to cast his vote in South Africa's first all-race elections at the site of the tomb of John Dube, the co-founder of the African National Congress in 1912.
As Mandela ambled in his long, slow strides toward the cemetery, he paused to shake the hand of a young white soldier armed with an R-4 automatic rifle. 'It's an honour for me to meet you,' he said. 'You must have had to get up very early. I'm very sorry.' The trooper, who just a few years before would have been under orders to regard Mandela as the most dangerous man alive, stood there dumbfounded. 'Thank you sir,' he stammered, 'but it's my job.' Mandela held his hand for a moment and said it did not matter, he was very grateful anyway.
After laying a wreath at the tomb, Mandela walked down towards the school where a phalanx of three hundred photographers and journalists were jostling with each other for the ideal position to capture the most famous vote in African history. As the raucous was going on, Mandela went around shaking the hand of every police officer and soldier he could find, asking warmly how they were and saying how nice it was to meet them.
From there, Mandela strode up the steps into the schoolhouse, cast his vote in secrecy, and reappeared outside to do it again for the cameras. 'An unforgettable occasion,' he said with his wide, disarming smile. For 27 years Mandela had been a prisoner in the jails of South Africa's apartheid rulers because he believed that the African majority should enjoy their full democratic rights. During that time he emerged as the premier symbol of the struggle for African freedom and equality.
If he harboured any bitterness at his long incarceration, his years of working in the lime mines outside the cold, windswept prison on Robben Island, he never showed it. Long shunned by the West as a Communist - former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once described him as the leader of 'a typical terrorist organisation' - Mandela walked out of jail in February 1990 and said let bygones be bygones. His vote four years later marked the final stage of Africa's emergence from the shadow of colonial occupation. It was as if Mandela were the human manifestation of the inscription written on John Dube's tombstone: 'Out of the darkness into the glorious light'.
No-one who witnessed that scene or indeed Mandela's rise from being the world's most famous prisoner to becoming head of state of Africa's most powerful country could forget the incredible dignity and humility which enveloped him. The uncanny ability of Madiba, as he is commonly known after his clan name, to make those around him feel better about themselves is often described as 'Mandela magic'. Much has been written about the iron will and sacrifice to free his people from subjugation, but his genius, and one of the many reasons he evokes such admiration around the world, is his ability to bring African values to bear on the problems of the new millennium - values such as the preeminence of the interests of the community over those of the individual, respect for traditional culture, and an at times unbelievable capacity for forgiveness - not to forget the past but to forgive in order to move towards a better future.
Making sense of Mandela's journey from his childhood in a Xhosa royal
family in the Transkei, to the dapper Johannesburg lawyer, the underground guerrilla commander, the world's most celebrated prisoner who rose to head of state, and finally a retired elder statesman with a penchant for self-deprecating jokes is the awesome mission Anthony Sampson set himself. It is also one that he has completed with insight and grace. If one had to choose a single book to read about Mandela's pivotal contribution to the enthronement of democratic rule in South Africa, and ultimately to the triumph of the human spirit, Mandela would be it. Few, if any, biographies on any subject can match it.
Although Mandela is an authorised biography, it escapes the tempting descent into hagiography. Mandela's warts are on display - his youthful arrogance and vanity (he spent huge sums on fancy clothes), the resentment his children felt for him for dedicating his life to the struggle rather than to them, and the wrenching collapse of his relationship with his second wife, Winnie.
In fact, Sampson's particular contribution to the history of Mandela has been to demythologize the man but in so doing to enhance his stature of a modern day hero. When it comes to Mandela, fact is truly greater than fiction.
Sampson, the author of three books on South Africa and a former editor of Jim Bailey's Drum magazine, met Mandela in the early 1950s and was not always impressed with him, believing at times that there was little substance to the glittering image. His initial attempts to establish the African National Congress military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), were farcical. But Mandela stood up when it counted, and in 1962 told the court that his cause of democratic freedom for the black majority was an ideal 'for which I am prepared to die'.
He entered jail on Robben Island as the champion of black South Africa's defiance of the apartheid regime and emerged 27 years later as the symbol of the movement's commitment to reconciliation. Imprisonment taught him to stand back from himself, to see himself in the context of the world around him. Mandela gradually assumed control of the prison through his moral authority, winning over fellow inmates and even the white warders themselves.
And in the mid-1980s, he took the decision alone to begin negotiations with the government of the arch-conversative Afrikaner, P.W. Botha. These early contacts, often not sanctioned by the ANC led by the late Oliver Tambo, eventually led to the unbanning of the proscribed political parties, Mandela's release, and the historic compromise with the government of F. W. De Klerk.
All the while he preached forgiveness and reconciliation. But as Sampson writes, such forgiveness had a political purpose. Forgiveness was an aspect of power, establishing a moral supremacy which reminded everyone that the balance of power had shifted. Sampson goes on to quote one of Mandela's colleagues as saying, You never quite know whether hes a saint or a Machiavelli.
Mandela was undoubtedly one of the great personalities of the 20th century, a man without whose involvement South Africa very well could have slipped down the abyss into an all-out race war. As Joe Slovo, the late white communist leader, is quoted as saying, without Mandela South African history would have taken a completely different turn. And the turn Slovo was talking about would not have been for the better.