The critics on Young Mandela

Time Out – Chris Waywell

David James Smith’s ‘Young Mandela’ is burdened with the kind of anterior baggage that can make a book stall before it’s even got going. The sheer fact of Mandela and what he has meant to South Africa in the last 60 years makes him a kind of no-go area (to add to the country’s many others), so this portrait of the years up to his imprisonment in 1962 is tackling a lot.

We have Mandela the snappy dresser, Mandela the ladies’ man; later Mandela the guerrilla leader, holed up in a hotel room with a gun and 200 rounds of live ammunition that he’s been given and doesn’t know what to do with. What’s lacking perhaps, is Mandela the man. Under the circumstances, this may be inevitable; Mandela existed in negative space for so long that to turn this outline into flesh and blood was always going to be a tall order, especially given the importance to both sides of the struggle to recreate him as an ambiguous caricature: terrorist or martyr.

What does emerge is a man appropriately struggling with an internalised conflict of rival identities: he prides himself on his ‘royal blood’, yet yearns for American cars and handmade suits; for a long time he is one half of the only black law practise in the country, yet when he goes into hiding, the bailiff repossesses the family’s furniture because he’s stopped making payments on it. Smith is a sympathetic guide through these ambiguities, gently chiding when accounts differ, seeking neither to bury Mandela nor to praise him; certain unsavoury episodes – the treatment of his first wife, Evelyn, the sad story of his son Makgatho – are dealt with even-handedly . The book is also excellent on the sheer bizarreness of SA society under apartheid: Mandela attends an all black stage musical version of ‘King Kong’ at which, by special dispensation, a mixed audience is allowed to sit in alternating rows of white and black. Afterwards, he congratulates the writer on a number he interprets to be a comment on his then ongoing ‘Treason Trial’. It isn’t.

Ultimately, it probably doesn’t really matter what pre-incarceration Mandela was like, but reading ‘Young Mandela’ in conjunction with Bloom’s book, it’s hard now not to see him as a man not only out of step with his own time, but also with the future for his country he helped create.


Latest News

  • The Sleep Of Reason – The James Bulger Case by David James Smith:
    Faber Finds edition with new preface, available September 15th, 2011.

  • Young Mandela the movie – in development.

    From The Guardian
    Read the article

    In the Diary column of The Independent, April 13th, 2011

    More on my previously unsubstantiated claim that the writer-director Peter Kosminsky, creator of The Promise, is working on a drama about Nelson Mandela. I’ve now learnt that the project is a feature film, in development with Film 4, about the young Mandela. Kosminsky is currently at work on the script and, given the complaints about the anti-Jewish bias of The Promise, it is unlikely to be a standard bland portrait of the former South African president.

Latest Review

    New York Times – J. M. Ledgard
  • Nelson Mandela was circumcised as a 16-year-old boy alongside a flowing river in the Eastern Cape. The ceremony was similar to those of other Bantu peoples. An elder moved through the line making ring-like cuts, and foreskins fell away. The boys could not so much as blink; it was a rite of passage that took you beyond pain. read full review

See David James Smith…

Jon Venables: What Went Wrong
BBC 1, 10.35
Thursday, April 21st, 2011