A gentlemanly critic and commentator

2009-05-27 00:00


The Anatomist

The Autobiography of Anthony Sampson

Jonathan Ball

ANTHONY Sampson is in many ways the perfect gentleman, and this makes him the perfect host to his life story. But as a result he is also frustratingly proper and reserved, and refuses to dish the dirt on anyone. There are no scores being settled in this account of his life.

In South Africa, his name is immediately associated with Drum magazine and the authorized biography of Nelson Mandela. In 1951, fresh out of Oxford, “restless, rebellious” and “unfit for a normal job”, he got the telegram that launched his career: “Are you immediately available job new Negro periodical in Cape Town Fifty pounds month say yes Jim Bailey”. He readily acknowledges that his own inexperience and lack of journalistic background was what allowed him the freedom to give Drum writers like Henry Nxumalo, Todd Matshikiza and others free rein, creating in the process a distinctive African forum. His account of those years in his book called Drum was a meatier read than that which appears in these pages, written with what he calls a “raw, jerky style”, unsmoothed by observing the ways of many countries and their politicians over his decades of being a journalist. His first stay was brief, and he returned to London to work on the Observer, but a love of South Africa and a fascination with its politics brought him back, to the first treason trial, then the Rivonia trial where he advised Mandela on the speech he would give from the dock, and then again many times over the years.

In the late fifties he started work on his Anatomy of Britain series, from which the autobiography derives its name. In a similar manner, he dissected the workings of Europe, other African states, Nixon’s America, as well as the global effects of the arms and oil trades.

One strongly gets the sense that he was proudest of his biography of Mandela, for whom he had enormous respect and affection. He spills no beans in the Mandela chapter, where he argues that a “sense of nationhood was Mandela’s greatest achievement. Without it, nothing else could have been achieved.” He wrestles with on the one hand the over-romanticisation of the pre-release Mandela in the eyes of the world, and the evidence of his diminished influence as the rainbow dream started wearing thin. But he writes with empathy of the pressures facing not only Mandela, but the ANC too as it took over government and started transforming a “white, oligarchic police state” into a “democratic, open society”.

With Sampson’s death, South Africa lost a true friend. The autobiography he left behind, still unfinished, tells something of the inquiring, critical journalist, the quiet, self-effacing man, the wanderer who left his heart in South Africa. I would have preferred a more red-blooded account of his life and times, but that would not have been a true reflection of a critic and commentator who never let cynicism creep into his view of people and their struggles for freedom and dignity.

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