The critics on Young Mandela

The Daily Dispatch – The Man Behind The Madiba Icon

TWO foreigners, two books on Nelson Mandela, two entirely different approaches.

Mandela’s Way by Richard Stengel and Young Mandela by David James Smith do have a couple of things in common, though.

Both are well-written, which isn’t so surprising since Stengel is Time magazine’s editor and Smith writes for The Sunday Times Magazine in the UK.

And even though Stengel describes the father of the nation – uTata – as “perhaps the last pure hero on the planet”, both writers manage to portray a real person, rather than a haloed saint.

In some ways, Stengel’s book is the lighter of the two, although he has the insider edge, having spent almost three years shadowing the great man – travelling with him, eating with him, and privileged to hear him think out loud as they collaborated on Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

Mandela even wrote the preface to Stengel’s book, describing the author as someone who grasps the idea of ubuntu, whose insight into the “many complex leadership challenges facing the world today” we can all learn from.

For Smith, who didn’t know Mandela, The Nelson Mandela Foundation was something of an ally, even though, as he says, “they knew from the outset that my plan was to rescue the sainted Madiba from the dry pages of history, to strip away the myth and create a fresh portrait of a rounded human being”. With the foundation’s help, Smith was able to access almost forgotten papers and to enter “Mandela’s trusted circle” of family and friends.

The result, Young Mandela, explores the reasons for the former president’s activism through the story of his childhood up to his Treason Trial sentence.

Unbelievably – given the vast number of words that have been written about the world’s favourite statesman – some new details emerge, making it not just another book about Mandela.

As gripping as any spy novel, it brings to life the danger, indignity and camaraderie endured by those who fought for freedom. Names that are now legendary people the pages; stories of petty spats, romance and betrayal make it as vivid as a movie script.

Early last year, Smith says he was ushered into an office in Johannesburg where someone – who didn’t get up when he entered – was seated behind a huge desk.

“My knees will not allow it,” the elderly man explained by way of apology.

“The knees were 90 years old and belonged to Nelson Mandela,” writes Smith.

While I wouldn’t go quite as far as the cover blurb, which describes Smith’s book as “the single most important contribution to our knowledge of this global icon”, it’s a worthwhile addition.

Stengel’s Mandela’s Way, part biography, part self-help manual, demonstrates, as the title says, how Madiba’s way of dealing with life’s tribulations can be put to use in our own lives. Chapters with headings such as Courage Is Not the Absence of Fear, See the Good in Others, and Quitting is Leading Too are illustrated with real examples from Mandela’s life.

Got an enemy? Get to know him. Mandela did – studying Afrikaans grammar and even poetry. How could he defeat his enemy, he reasoned, if he couldn’t understand him?

In a tense spot? Stay calm.

“In the moments I have been with Mandela in a crisis, he has always been intensely calm, entering a kind of Zen state,” writes Stengel.

In 1993, Mandela – at his Transkei home with Stengel – had promised to say hello to a visiting East London rugby team. Breaking off from greeting them when the phone rang, he took the call in the kitchen.

“Chris Hani has been shot and killed,” Stengel recalls Mandela saying.

“I asked by whom. He said he did not know and then … he strode out of the kitchen and back to the driveway to continue shaking hands with the East London rugby team.”

It was “a terrible tipping point” for the country, threatening to descend into a bloody civil war.

Mandela, says Stengel, was icily calm.

It was Mandela, not State President FW de Klerk, who addressed South Africa on national television that night, pointing out that though a white man had “committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster”, a white woman “of Afrikaner origin risked her life so that we may know and bring to justice this assassin”.

Many times while working on Long Walk to Freedom, Stengel says he had to ask: “What would Nelson Mandela do?”

It was a powerful exercise, he says.

“As distant as his life’s circumstances might be from our own, his example gives us something to hold on to ….”


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