The critics on Young Mandela

Pretoria News Weekend – Author takes brave dip into darker side of Mandela world

The Sunday newspapers played it hard and straight. Nelson Mandela’s son Makgatho had died of Aids, and a young grandchild and a young lover were allegedly enmeshed in the scandal. Despite our growing national ethos not to sensationalise Aids, that was how the story was drawn – as a scandal. And so, millions came to know that the man we all loved had apparently been estranged from a son many South Africans did not know existed, and that the Mandela family was divided between the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela side and the Evelyn Mase side. The Winnie side, we heard – many for the first time – had never been comfortable with the Evelyn side, and the wretched death of Makgatho threw a dirty, emotional war wide open. As the years have gone on, those background battles between the families born out of the second marriage to now world-famous Winnie, who is the mother of Mandela’s daughters, and the first marriage to Evelyn, little-known mother of Makgatho and Thembi, who died in a car accident, have carried on. That Mandla Mandela – Makgatho’s son, a chief, a rising young ANC MP and Mandela’s chosen political heir – is from Evelyn’s blood, has made the issue far more important. Yet, interestingly, not many prominent writers have ventured there, or anywhere else into muddied Mandela waters. The sanctification of one the world’s most loved statesman has surely kept them away. So has the wall that the ANC sets up between itself and those who want to probe its heroes. But British journalist David James Smith, who writes for London’s Sunday Times Magazine, has stepped gingerly onto the sacred ground to try to take up some of the rifts and the damage in his book Young Mandela. Clearly, it was not a straightforward assignment. Although his introduction establishes a polite basis for some contentment between himself, the Mandelas and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, it has an uneasiness to it that suggests something else. As Mandela turns 92, Smith is one of the few journalists and writers who has been willing to try to look a little more wryly, not to say critically, at a living saint. And some of his allegations, although mostly known, have of course been almost unbearable. His first wife claimed Mandela was a violent abuser. Was he? He has denied it again and again, and Mandelaphiles have reacted repeatedly with horror. So one can only imagine how Smith – who has all along insisted he regards his job as to strip away the myths – must have battled to articulate the depth of that shadow from the past appropriately. Then there are love affairs. Indeed, only the most sheltered individuals would be able to believe that Mandela – who has shamelessly flirted with and shown his appreciation of lovely women – would never have succumbed. But James goes again where others have tried: into the rumours about love children and adultery. The old hurts, the old betrayals. Are they true? Most dominant among them have been the stories about ANC stalwarts Lilian Ngoyi – who is described as not particularly feminine but, euphemistically, rather more “statuesque” – and the undeniable beauty, Ruth Mompati. Anyone who has interviewed Mompati recently will agree. In her early 80s, she walks into a room, and you do a double-take. Mase, again, was the one in pain, alleges Smith. She would have to watch as her husband brazenly took lovers. She wanted to throw boiling water on his head. She complained bitterly to Walter Sisulu. So Smith does not exactly demur, and it is obvious he desperately wants the dirt. He tries by all means to create a picture of a bloody and divided South African world in the 1950s and 1960s – of revolutionaries, would-be revolutionaries and common-or-garden hangers-on who couldn’t keep their hands off each other, even when this had nothing whatsoever to do with Mandela. He questions Mandela’s own creation of himself as a glorious outlaw and begs for irony on this. So Young Mandela is not dull, but it’s neither rough nor beautiful enough. It feels a little too much like an outsider’s self-fulfilling prophecy. But what it does do is get us thinking again about another side to a man we love, whose legend we cannot bear to touch. The truth, after all, is always going to be more agonising than the fiction.


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