The critics on Young Mandela

Financial Times – Alec Russell

The phenomenon that is the Nelson Mandela publishing industry had an unpromising start. When the great man was encouraged by comrades to write his memoirs during his long nights imprisoned on Robben Island, they had to beg him to include any details about his personal life. His response – unsurprisingly, one might think, given that he was raised at the feet of traditional rural chiefs and then trained in the Victorian precepts of English missionaries – was tart. It was more than a decade into his 27-year incarceration and the plan was to release the book on his 60th birthday in 1978. He wrote in secret at night before smuggling his drafts to his lieutenants for their comments. Mac Maharaj, one of his closest confidants over the years, recalls a chilly exchange when he broached the idea of spicing up the text with more personal details and even emotion.

The conversation continued on lines wearily familiar to many an editor over the years: “Madiba [Mandela’s clan name by which he is known across South Africa], this thing is shaping up to be a f***ing political instrument,” Maharaj recalls telling Mandela. When he went on to urge Mandela to write about the break-up of his first marriage and his relationship with his second wife, Winnie, Mandela said curtly, “I don’t discuss that with young boys like you.” (Maharaj was then in early middle age.)

After more senior colleagues talked to the ANC titan he relented and one night sent a note to Maharaj. “In the section about the break-up of my marriage you should insert: ‘And then I led a thoroughly immoral life,'” Mandela wrote. And that was that.

For his editors, his reticence was only part of the problem. Maharaj took a copy of the manuscript with him when he was released in the late 1970s, more than a decade before Mandela walked free in 1990. It was little more than a meaty political tract detailing the turbulent internal ANC politics of the 1950s and 1960s which led to the dramatic decision to abandon non-violent protests and adopt an armed struggle. The text was used by Mandela on his release from prison as the foundation of his autobiography. But in the early 1990s rumours circulated in literary and media circles in Johannesburg that the manuscript was all but unreadable. The project was in disarray. Into the breach stepped an American journalist, Richard Stengel, now the editor of Time Magazine and – as it happens – author, nearly two decades later, of the best of a series of new books on Mandela.

In the early 1990s Stengel was amanuensis rather than author. For nearly three years he accompanied Mandela from township rallies to his rural village as his “ghost”. Their collaboration produced surely one of the great autobiographies of the 20th century, Long Walk to Freedom.

After the launch Mandela loved to joke with people asking him to sign their copy: “Why are you wasting your time with this book?” That was classic self-deprecating, teasing, seductive Mandela. It was, in fact, a hauntingly beautiful account which closed with a majestic peroration on freedom. “I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

Mandela’s autobiography was part of a wave of books that marked his ascent to power in 1994. Now a second wave is breaking – and the “ghost” has gone a stage further. Stengel’s Mandela’s Way: Lessons on Life is the most insightful explanation yet of what has become known as the “Mandela magic”. Based on hundreds of hours of interviews, it shows that Stengel clearly adores his subject yet manages to avoid the usual pitfall of Mandela-watchers of lurching into hagiography. He “travelled with him, ate with him, tied his shoes, straightened his tie”. He says Mandela’s presence is “golden and luminous” and that when someone makes the mistake of trying to labour a point he will frown and “it is like a sunny day that has suddenly become overcast”. And yet Stengel makes perfectly clear, in just 230 crisp pages, that Mandela is a political pragmatist, not a saint nor a Gandhi.

There are sparkling new anecdotes, in particular from Robben Island. But this is far more than just a clear-sighted navigation through the myths. Every page should be read by political and business titans: this is the ultimate manual on leadership and on how to manage a dysfunctional organisation (the ANC, which has been ruling South Africa since 1994). Mandela knows how to lead from the front – as he did by being the first to stand up to the guards on Robben Island – or in secretly initiating talks with the apartheid regime. Yet he knows also the importance of leading “from behind”. He cited Lincoln reverentially to the author and spoke of his way of persuading rather than ordering his cabinet colleagues to do things. “It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it is their own idea,” he told Stengel. Running through these pages are two narrative strands: his use of charm as a political weapon and his belief in playing the long game.

Now that his ghost has put pen to paper again, one might think that there was little else to say beyond the future memoirs of the few aides who have been with him in the decade since his retirement from politics. But as Mandela has passed milestone after milestone, so his record appears, if possible, even more glorious – particularly when set against his rather more human successors, and publishers have gone into Mandela overdrive.

There is something a little distasteful about some of the hoopla. His lawyers are fighting a wearisome battle against people who are making money peddling Mandela artefacts. Many of the new books merely regurgitate pictures, analysis and information that are all too familiar. Mandela may be a private man but, until a few years ago when his strength started to fade, he was extraordinarily accessible. Even in 1994, just four years after his release, journalists knew that one of the great challenges on interviewing him was to elicit anything new about his past.

But there are a few in this second wave of books with genuine new insights. Among them is David James Smith’s Young Mandela . The pre-publication hype did it a disservice. In search of an eye-catching headline, a British newspaper that had advance serialisation rights billed the book earlier this year in lurid terms. It was, readers were told, an exposé that laid bare the reality behind the Mandela myth by exposing his messy private life before his imprisonment and disclosing the allegation that he beat his first wife. I expected a deliberately revisionist history or even a hatchet job but was pleasantly surprised.

There were a couple of passages where the author, an experienced journalist who writes for The Sunday Times magazine, appeared to be straining to make a wrenching conclusion. While he may be right that Mandela had an affair and even a child with Ruth Mompati, a senior ANC activist, the evidence he adduces is insufficient to substantiate his case. But this is a fascinating account of – perforce – the most turbulent period of Mandela’s life: his years between arriving in Johannesburg as a country boy, wet-behind-the-ears, fleeing the traditions of his Eastern Cape birthplace for the most vibrant and dangerous town in southern Africa – as true of the City of Gold then as it is now – and his incarceration as a full-blown revolutionary.

In the fleeting era that Smith evokes, when South Africa’s handful of liberals dared to dream of a multiracial future, Mandela was something of a dandy, favouring swanky tailored suits he could ill afford. It takes Winnie, his divorced second wife, to put this in context. He never paid for anything, she says. They were all gifts.

The book abounds with such telling quotes. Smith has had access to Mandela’s friends, many of whom spoke remarkably frankly of his foibles. Their openness reflects his and his confidants’ desire to portray him as a very human figure rather than the secular saint of legend. But Smith has also spoken to those of his close relatives who have a more ambivalent view of the liberation hero.

Who could not be moved by the account of him meeting his son Thembi when he was on the run and shortly before he was captured? Thembi was wearing tatty clothes and desperately wanted a father. But Mandela had chosen to dedicate his life to hundreds of thousands of Thembis – and so it was that he had to grow up without a father. (He died in a car crash when Mandela was in prison.) Far from undermining the myth, such stories burnish it as a reminder of the sacrifices he had to make – as does the agonising account of the elderly Mandela attending the deathbed of his other son, Makgatho, when he was dying of Aids, and yet being all but unable even to hold his hand.

It is astonishing to recall how little was known publicly about Mandela before his release from prison in 1990. The sketchiness of early biographies, notably by the journalist Mary Benson and the “struggle” veteran Fatima Meer, written when he was in prison, had reflected how few could or would talk about him. Yet now there is a small library devoted to him.

Some of the first wave of post-1990 Mandela books were exploitative. One of his prison warders wrote an account of their supposed bond which Mandela’s aides dismissed as self-serving and exaggerated. But others authoritatively filled in gaps in his autobiography. His old friend Anthony Sampson wrote a highly regarded authorised biography, published in 1999. This was neatly complemented by the veteran Africa-writer Martin Meredith’s compendious account, Mandela: A Biography , also published in 1999 – updated and republished this year – which scrupulously assimilated all the available published evidence. This brings the story up to date through the post-presidential years when Mandela yet again led from the front and championed the fight against Aids.

The word Mandela in a title has long helped to sell books. (This reviewer should come clean and admit that his publishers – rightly – decided his account of postapartheid South Africa would be more successful as “After Mandela” than under a more poetic title.) Now there are books of Mandela sayings, Mandela children’s books, Mandela cartoon books and coffee table books. Peter Hain, the former British cabinet minister and antiapartheid activist, has written Mandela – described by the publishers as the “most digestible read about a global hero”. That is blurb for a rushed job with no discernible new material. But it does have some haunting and memorable pictures.

Soon, no doubt, there will be Mandela recipe books. All this is ahead of what the publishing industry, with its characteristic hyperbole, is doing its best to hype as one of the publishing events of the decade: the autumn launch of Nelson Mandela’s Conversations with Myself , a book drawing on hitherto unpublished notes and documents. (President Barack Obama is to write the foreword.)

Mandela was 92 last Sunday. When he appeared in public wrapped in a thick coat and hat at the closing ceremony of the World Cup the previous weekend, spectators reacted as if they had seen a living god. This may be one of the last times the “old man” appears in public. As Stengel’s and James’s books in particular make clear, the myth does not do him justice.


Latest News

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Latest Review

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See David James Smith…

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