The hands-on Mandela

2009-12-14 00:00

BOOKS about Nelson Mandela are developing into a small industry. There is yet more to come once a struggle over the publishing rights for Mandela’s letters and diaries titledConversation with Myself is resolved: it will shed light on South Africa’s first democratically elected government. So is a new edition of Mandela: The Authorised Portrait a case of saturation?

The big-man school of history went out of fashion long ago, the victim of a realisation that the course of human affairs is shaped by broad, sweeping trends and many hands. There is little in this book that adds to what is already well known about Mandela’s life and times, but its distinctiveness lies in the insights of a wide range of colleagues and acquaintances.

Some of the comments from foreigners are predictably off beam. Fergal Keane claims that in the ­early eighties it was forbidden to ­utter Mandela’s name in public: this will come as a surprise to thousands of South Africans who clearly ­remember signing petitions for his release at precisely that time. Bob Hughes of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement believes that the ­African National Congress has not been seduced by the trappings of power. He clearly does not live in South Africa.

More soberly, Ahmed Kathrada points out that the apartheid government was never going to be removed by military means and that Mandela was one of the first ANC leaders to realise that it had to be negotiated out of power. And House of Commons Speaker Betty Boothroyd hits the nail squarely on the head when she writes that Mandela “represents the best spirit of humankind”.

That sums up the point of this book. Mandela’s life has been one of exemplary service, dedication and heroic principle, full of very human flaws and pitfalls. And there were others. Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo were equally important. Nor is Mandela the only contender for the title of most respected figure of recent history. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi match his moral stature and fortitude — but they renounced violence.

It is not what Mandela has done in his life as a struggle leader, but what he represents that is so crucial for South Africans. Desmond Tutu points to his magnanimous and generous personality. But his shrewd appreciation of the syncretic heritage of early colonisation, which blended traditional practice with the modern world, is of even greater value to this country in the long term. Throughout his life, Mandela used every opportunity — the Treason Trial, the Fort, the Rivonia Trial and Robben Island — to promote an inclusive view of the country’s future. Mandela’s was a moral cause as much as it was political. A steadfast democrat, he was almost always able to harness his emotions under the most adverse of circumstances in the interests of the long view. The courteous Xhosa aristocrat is a listener and a mediator. The fact that it took until the mid-eighties for the National Party to realise this, is testimony to the aridity of apartheid.

Most importantly, this book provides a wake-up call. As Verne Harris notes in his contribution, Mandela is still with us, but he is already history. The inclusive nonracialism to which he devoted his life is alive in the consciousness of many South Africans, but it has almost disappeared from public policy. In some ways, Mandela’s new South Africa and Desmond Tutu’s over-optimistic rainbow ­nation were just stepping stones: from the old South Africa — back to the old South Africa.

Mandela understood the importance of a negotiated settlement and the Truth Commission process in spite of their drawbacks, and he chose members of his cabinet by and large for their competence. His adult life is an example of leadership that put the good of the nation ahead of any sectional interest. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar shrewdly observes that Mandela is a “man for all generations”.

Frene Ginwala’s recent observation on the poverty of leadership in current-day South Africa is thoroughly vindicated in this book. The recent history of the ANC is a devastating repudiation of all that Mandela and his comrades stood for. They kept open the possibility of a moral and just society. The freedom they created has been abused by their successors in an orgy of corruption and looting, enabled by maladministration, the perversion of justice and, on occasion, sheer thuggery.

Shaun Johnson observes that from an early age, Mandela appears to have had a sense of his destiny and of what he could offer the people of South Africa. Whether they squander it or not has long since passed into their hands. The signs are not good, so it is fitting to conclude with the blunt words of Zelda le Grange, Mandela’s personal assistant: “Look at his life and learn”.

• Mike Nicol is the author of the narrative biography of Mandela: The Authorised Portrait, published in an extended edition by Wild Dog Press in 2009. Mac Maharaj and Ahmed Kathrada were the editorial consultants. An earlier edition was published in 2006.

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