(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Anthony Sampson, one of Great Britain’s most eminent and respected journalists, is the author of many books, including the influential Anatomy of Britain (1962) and its succeeding volumes. In the 1950’s, he resided in South Africa, where he was the editor of the black publication Drum; he first became acquainted with Nelson Mandela in 1951. Sampson’s long relationship with Mandela made him the obvious choice to write this authorized biography, and the result is a brilliant study of the life of one of the twentieth century’s major figures as well as a valuable history of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid and its aftermath.

Mandela is divided into three sections. The first traces Mandela’s background as an aristocratic country child, his education in mission schools, and his move to urban South Africa, where he became a lawyer and antiapartheid activist. In 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, and his long incarceration forms the second part of Sampson’s study. As Sampson shows, imprisonment also served as an education for Mandela as he learned to master himself and others. The final section details the events after Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, including his stormy negotiations with F. W. de Klerk’s government and his years as desegregated South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

Mandela was born in the rural Transkei in 1918, his father a chieftain who passed on to his son an awareness of his status as a member of the old African nobility. At mission school he acquired the first name of Nelson, after the famous British admiral. After attending South Africa’s only black university, Mandela moved to Johannesburg in 1941. There he soon became apprenticed to a white law firm. He pursued a law degree at the University of Witwatersrand, the only South African university to admit black students, and became involved in the African National Congress (ANC), joining its national executive in 1950 and becoming head of its Youth League. At 6 feet, 2 inches tall, Mandela was an imposing figure, conscious of his physique and always well dressed.

The issues of black nationalism and communism long troubled the ANC and Mandela. There was agreement that white supremacy must end, but was South Africa to be only for blacks or would other races be included? In the 1955 Freedom Charter, which Mandela strongly supported, an interracial South Africa was envisioned. The second issue was what role communists should play in the movement. Mandela, although never a communist, was always willing to admit them to the antiapartheid struggle. Though impressed by Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy, he was also ready to entertain the use of violence in pursuit of the ANC’s aims, a possibility that increased with the deepening of apartheid in the late 1950’s.

In 1956, Mandela was among the more than one hundred antiapartheid radicals who were arrested and charged with high treason. Mandela’s first marriage had failed (partially because of his political activities), and he married a second time to a beautiful young social worker, Winnie Madikizela, who was sixteen years his junior and who was eventually to become a major figure in her own right. At the same time the ANC split, divided between the Africanists, who demanded a South Africa only for blacks, and those who supported the Freedom Charter and who were willing to work with other races, even white communists. The former were expelled from the ANC and established the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which remained a bitter rival to the ANC for decades.

The March, 1960, Sharpeville massacre of sixty-seven blacks demonstrating against the requirement to carry passes was a turning point, both within and without South Africa. The PAC and ANC contended for leadership in the black communities in the aftermath, which also saw the government outlaw the ANC and detain several thousand individuals, including Mandela. With the ANC outlawed, its president, Oliver Tambo, fled the country, eventually to London, where he headed the ANC in exile for the next thirty years. Mandela abandoned nonviolence in reaction to the government’s methods, becoming head of the ANC’s secret military wing. Forced underground, he became known as the “Black Pimpernel,” and he secretly left South Africa and sought outside support, but his interracialism was unpopular among other African nationalists more sympathetic to the PAC’s philosophy. Shortly after returning to South Africa he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to five years in prison. Sampson notes that Mandela was accused then and since of being an amateur in the guise of a violent revolutionary, but his militant actions and his speech at his trial established him as South Africa’s antiapartheid leader.

After being convicted, he was sent to the infamous Robben Island, known as South Africa’s...

(The entire section is 1997 words.)