As the world has praised Nelson Mandela over the last few weeks there seems little to add concerning his importance to world history. A man of such magnitude deserved a biography that encompasses his entire life with an author who delves into all aspects of their subject including their flaws. I found two major biographies of Mandela, Anthony Sampson’s MANDELA, and a book of the same title by Martin Meredith. I chose Meredith’s work because Sampson’s was the “authorized biography” and I wanted to read a book that appeared less likely to be hagiography. Meredith who has written a number of books on South African history is both a historian and a journalist and has written a book that is more than a biography of Mandela as a person and what he experienced, but a work that encompasses all major aspects of South African history from the introduction of apartheid through the election of Mandela as president and his term in office. The book itself is very detailed and explores Mandela’s life beginning with his tribal upbringing and education in missionary schools and ending with his retirement from public life in 2007.
As a narrative history Meredith has presented a readable account of his subject, though at times his prose is somewhat wordy and trenchant. However, once the reader becomes used to Meredith’s approach the material is worth exploring as the author provides important historical background to each aspect of his topic, and he is able to weave important analysis into each major subject. The reader is exposed to Mandela’s personal development at the same time Meredith incorporates the history of the African National Congress (ANC) into the narrative. Meredith explores ANC policy as it tries to implement a strategy to deal with apartheid and presents the factions that developed within the party as the “party elites” pursued a more moderate approach when compared to the younger generation that emerged during World War II that wanted to pursue a more violent and radical program. Throughout the book Mandela appears to side with the “elites” and except for a few burst of anger over the course of events he calls for a non-violent course of action.
Meredith provides details of the horrendous conditions that existed for Africans in Afrikaner society. The role of State Security and police in repressing opposition is ever present as violence, torture, and murder are employed to maintain the apartheid system. Meredith presents the evolution of Mandela from a young man pursuing a career in law to an activist who can no longer tolerate what is happening in his country. Meredith reviews the Rivonia Trial using court transcripts that results in Mandela’s twenty-seven year imprisonment, most of which takes place in the notorious Robben Island prison. The evolution of Mandela’s political thinking, his relationship with warders, other prisoners, and the prison hierarchy are revealed in detail. Upon his release we witness what Mandela has become and we follow the course of his career, renewed family life, and attempts to lead South Africa out of its period of darkness. The negotiations between Mandela and the ANC on the one hand, and P.W. Botha and F. W. de Klerk, the two Prime Ministers are presented. The years 1990-1994 are vitally important and provide insights in trying to understand the South African political persona, and why Mandela’s achievement of a bi-racial democracy for South Africa was so important.
The areas I found most interesting dealt with the internal debates within the ANC and the different personalities involved. Aside from Mandela, individuals such as Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo emerge as important figures that deserve a great deal of credit for the evolution of ANC policy and resulting successes. Meredith does an exceptional job in discusses Afrikaner politics and policy maneuvering as the different Prime Ministers try and maintain a system that evolves into a worldwide pariah. The fractious nature of South African society is nicely explained as we see how the Indian, Africans, and Afrikaner populations exist within a segregated society. We witness the economic and societal implications of apartheid and the lengths that the white power structure went to maintain it. Throughout the narrative all aspects of the story return to Mandela, a man who is exceptional, but also somewhat flawed.
Meredith delves into Mandela’s personal life and what emerge are an authoritarian father, a poor husband at times, a philanderer, and a person who could be very stubborn and dogmatic. Meredith offers examples to support his conclusions but his overall evaluation of Mandela is an exceptional individual who overcame enormous obstacles. Meredith captures Mandela best as he describes his survival strategy while imprisoned, “he became adept at concealing his emotions behind a mask, rarely letting any sign of anger or bitterness emerge and never betraying doubt or despair before others.” (286) These traits allowed Mandela to develop his own “personality cult” while in prison and later as a politician and became a means for him to survive the personal and political crises that he was confronted with each day.
Mandela’s political naiveté is an important component when dealing with his world view. Meredith is on firm ground as he discusses Mandela’s relationship with his wife Winnie. Mandela’s devotion to her blinded him to the fact that she is almost a sociopath in dealing with her own sense of self. The discussion of the Mandela United Football Club and the violence and murder she was involved with is important as Mandela constantly makes excuses for her actions and repeatedly supports her attempts to secure her own political power base. Meredith nicely documents their marriage, its failure, the court appearances, and the final break up as Mandela finally after making excuses for years comes to the realization of what his wife really is. When dealing with Winnie or negotiations with de Klerk and others Mandela develops rationalizations to justify his positions, it is as if he has tunnel vision when he confronts evidence that does not support his world view. Once Mandela becomes president of South Africa Meredith should be more balanced in describing “a benign patriarch, floating above the political hurly-burly and taking a broad-brush approach to government”(567) because of the problems that ensued after he left office and was replaced by Govan Mbeki. Meredith presents Mandela’s flaws but he is correct in praising his subject in that without him apartheid would have witnessed a much more violent end than transpired under his leadership.
If there is an aspect of the book that might have enhanced the experience for the reader it would have been to use footnotes or endnotes. It is obvious that Meredith is on top of his material but his annotated bibliography designed to create a broad umbrella for citations is not very effective and leaves this reader to question where some of the information originates. Overall this is a work of history that is greatly needed for those who would like to understand what has transpired in South Africa in the twentieth century and gain insights as to where it is heading in the future. The audience for this book might appear narrow from my comments, but it is worth plowing through because of the story it tells.