Mandela: the man, the myth, the miracle

August 20, 1999

Shula Marks welcomes a life of reluctant 'demi-god' Nelson Mandela.

When in February 1990 Nelson Mandela emerged from the Victor Verster prison in Paarl, there were many who predicted the swift political demise of a man who had become an icon of black aspirations in South Africa during his -year incarceration. How, after all, could he live up to the almost millennial expectations of the Mandela "myth"? The past nine years have proved these predictions wrong. Not only has Mandela retained the faith of the majority of black South Africans and - even more surprisingly - engaged the support of many white South Africans; he has also emerged as a symbol of hope and reconciliation in a world desperately divided by ethnic conflict and demoralised by the cynicism of politicians and pundits alike.

Mandela has appealed to millions across the world, not "as a man of power", but, Anthony Sampson remarks, "as a moral leader who ... stood out for fundamental principles and who gave hope for the future to all oppressed people and all countries torn by racial divisions".

In this masterly biography, Sampson traces Mandela's rural childhood and background as a young man of chiefly descent in the Transkei; explains his rise to leadership in the ANC in the turbulent 1950s; explores the ways in which his character and philosophy were distilled in the long years on Robben Island; examines the intricacies of his relationship with his jailers and then with Afrikaner cabinet ministers, and even with prime minister P. W. Botha himself, in the 1980s; and shows the ways in which the Mandela myth was created, sustained and manipulated, both by Mandela and by the ANC and the anti-apartheid movement more generally.

Much of the story is, of course, known, most notably from Mandela's own autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (1994), the first two-thirds of which were smuggled out of Robben Island in 1977, and from Alastair Sparks's narrative of the negotiations between the ANC and the National Party, Tomorrow is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa's Negotiated Settlement (1995). Sampson's biography is particularly fascinating in its account of the prison years, when Mandela's vision was both honed and revealed, in his analysis of duplicitous British diplomacy during the Thatcher years, and in his fine description of the transition and Mandela presidency in the 1990s. This is not simply a distinguished study of Mandela and his emergence as South African statesman and world icon, however; it is also a judicious and balanced assessment of contemporary South Africa.

Anyone wishing to understand the transition and South Africa's first five years of democratic rule should start here.

At least as deft is Sampson's handling of Mandela's personal life, and especially the intensely painful break-up of his marriage to Winnie. He resists the temptation either to gloss over or sensationalise the episode in any way or to see Winnie as the wicked witch, the counterpart to Madiba, the popular saint. While he pulls no punches, the picture he paints of Winnie is nuanced and not unsympathetic.

Given unrivalled access to Mandela himself and to his papers, Sampson has also conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with the other leading players. The footnotes constitute a veritable roll-call of the major figures in South African history over the past 50 years: Oliver Tambo, leader of the ANC in exile, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (as Mandela's ex-wife prefers now to be called), Mandela's Rivonia companions on the

island - most notably, perhaps, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and Govan Mbeki - three generations of black political activists, and white politicians of every persuasion from Joe Slovo to P. W. Botha, F. W. de Klerk, Tony Leon and Helen Suzman in South Africa. The result is a monumental piece of work which is likely to stand for many years as the definitive biography of Mandela. At the same time, what emerges from these pages is not simply the remarkable quality of Mandela as a leader, but also the extraordinary character of his fellow prisoners on Robben Island, in the anti-apartheid activists in South Africa and in the exiled movement.

When, in July 1990, Time magazine hailed Mandela as "a classic hero", "who has emerged from a symbolic grave reborn, made great, and filled with creative power...", the African "liberator", Mandela was quick as on all such occasions to disclaim the eulogies: "I am," he remarked, "sorry if I am seen as a demi-god ... I am a peg on which to hang all the aspirations of the African National Congress." The modesty was characteristic and the statement expressed Mandela's close identification with the ANC. Moreover, he does not only embody ANC values, he is ANC in the way that so many black South Africans describe themselves not as "belonging to" but as "being" ANC.

For all his disciplined devotion to the organisation, however, it is clear that from an early age Mandela developed a sense of mastery over his destiny, tempered by a certain fatalism, as the quotation from Julius Caesar below suggests.

Paradoxically his greatest contribution to South Africa came when he breached ANC discipline by engaging in talks with the National Party government in 1988. There are times, he argued, when it is the role of the leader to lead - if need be on his own judgement. And it is to Oliver Tambo's eternal credit that, despite his understandable misgivings, he allowed Mandela to go ahead. Thus, although Tambo has received none of the international adulation of Madiba, Sampson shows the critical contribution made to the struggle by Tambo, who became acting president general of the ANC after Mandela was jailed. His tolerant and democratic handling of internal debate kept the at-times ramshackle and rumbustious ANC together for 30 years - a remarkable, perhaps unique and certainly underrated achievement.

As crucial was the trust between Tambo and Mandela, even when the former could have had little idea of the nature of the

secret talks Mandela was having with the government. As the failure of conflict resolution in other parts of the world so vividly shows, without the backing of a unified and hegemonic ANC, negotiated settlement is impossible.

For Sampson, however, the prison years are clearly the fulcrum of Mandela's biography. They are "the key to his development, transforming the headstrong activist into the reflective and self-disciplined world statesman". Determined to continue his struggle for the recognition of African dignity, even in the degrading environment of Robben Island in the 1960s and 1970s, Mandela was able to win at least minimal human rights for his fellow prisoners in a series of patient but fearless contests with authority. At the same time he devoted much of his attention to getting to understand and win over the Afrikaners who ruled South Africa. In the process he established an extraordinary ascendancy not only over fellow ANC members or even over his political opponents among the prisoners, but also over Afrikaner prison warders, international visitors and ultimately the National Party cabinet ministers who came to his cell.

Slowly but surely the ANC prisoners were able to transform their environment on the island, so that newcomers were amazed by the cut and thrust of political debate and the extraordinarily eclectic cultural and intellectual life they encountered. In one of the many illuminating passages in the book, Sampson describes how a copy of Shakespeare's works circulated clandestinely among the prisoners, who autographed their favourite passages.

Shakespeare was more important for the common culture built up on the island than the Bible or the Koran, he remarks, not only for the messages in the political plays but also because his "deeper understanding of human courage, suffering and sacrifice reassured prisoners that they were part of a universal drama". When, on December 16 1977, after 14 years on Robben Island, Mandela came to choose his favourite Shakespearean passage he placed his signature next to a passage from Julius Caesar : "Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come."

For all his acceptance of a universal humanism, however, Sampson (and Mandela's own autobiography) show Mandela to be "very African": there is after all much in common between African ubuntu and "universal humanism". Mandela's life has encompassed rural childhood and urban modernity, Xhosa patriotism and African nationalism, consummate and at times ruthless political manoeuvring and international statesmanship: identities that have co-existed quite comfortably within him.

Do individuals matter in history? Inevitably biography as a genre magnifies the role of the individual and in general finds it difficult to address the structural determinants of social change. After reading Sampson's biography, even the most hardened structuralist would have to admit, however, that without Mandela the outcome in South Africa would probably have been very different. In his recent highly critical book, South Africa, Limits to Change: the Political Economy of Transformation (1998), the political journalist Hein Marais puts it well: "South Africa's providence," he says, "was that Mandela created a temporary recess in which a sense of unity or nationhood could sink a few tenuous roots. Mandela's historic feat was not only to have helped steer South Africa away from the brink of catastrophe but to have carved out a breathing space where pulses could settle, enmities subdue and affinities become recast."

Shula Marks is professor of Southern African history, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Mandela: The Authorised Biography

Author - Anthony Sampson
ISBN - 0 00 255829 7
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £24.99
Pages - 678

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