Book review – Looking behind the iconic grandeur

2010-10-23 13:45

To sum up his life after the failure of his first marriage to Evelyn Ntoko Mase and ­before his marriage to Winnie Madikizela, Nelson Mandela said: “Then I lived a ­thoroughly immoral life.”

He was ­talking to Mac Maharaj back on Robben ­Island. Maharaj was complaining about Madiba’s overguarded self­representation in his memoir that would ­later become the draft for Madiba’s ­autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

This detail is what truly makes David James Smith’s latest literary take on the world’s ­favourite elder statesman, Young Mandela. The book travels back in time to salvage­ Madiba’s humanity. Smith attempts to strip away the iconic grandeur that usually shrouds Mandela. He does it in a clean, ­simple fashion. The book is frank and ­revealing,­ yet retains some authorial empathy­. Even as Smith strips away at the cherished myths, he doesn’t compromise the beloved leader’s dignity.

He also delves, without sensationalising, into the racial dynamics of the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress, and the contribution of people such as Wolfie Kodesh and Arthur G­oldreich, who were ­indispensible to the project.

He also sheds light on the role of white communists, such as Joe Slovo and Bram Fischer, at a time when white participation in the struggle was contested.

Smith manages to deliver – with enough swing – on what could’ve been a spent story and makes this book a captivating read.

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