Has there ever been another life remotely comparable to that of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela? Born in an obscure village in 1918, Mandela grew up in a country in which color separated people to an extent undreamt of by even the most rabid American segregationist. Although black South Africans have always been a large majority in their own country, the pernicious apartheid system of the formerly white-controlled government excluded them from having the vote and enacted increasingly rigid segregation laws governing almost every aspect of their lives.
After Mandela entered adulthood, he chose to devote his life to fighting for the political and legal equality of all South Africans. As a consequence of actions in which he engaged, he spent twenty-seven years in prison, including a long stretch on frigid Robben Island, where his health was permanently damaged. By the time he regained his freedom in 1990, the map of Africa had changed almost beyond recognition from what it had been when he first entered prison. Every country in the continent was by then independent, and native Africans controlled the governments of all but one of these countries—his own. While Africans ruled in place of their former white masters in neighboring Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique by 1990, black South Africans still did not even have the vote. Nevertheless, against all odds, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa only four years later. By then he had received the Nobel Peace Prize and was almost universally acclaimed as one of the great statesmen of the ages.
How that remarkable transformation came about is one of the most incredible stories in history. With a life such as Mandela’s as subject matter, a biographer would need imagination to write a book that failed to be fascinating. Happily, Martin Meredith took the easy course by making Nelson Mandela: A Biography an unfailingly engrossing book to read.
Despite the recency of Mandela’s rise from prison to the presidency, he has been the subject of biographers and historians since the trials that sent him to prison in the early 1960’s made him a martyr in the cause of African nationalism. In 1963, for example, South African writer Mary Benson sketched Mandela’s life in The African Patriots: The Story of the African National Congress. Her book and those of others helped ensure that Mandela’s name would remain indelibly associated with the African nationalist movement. It also helped that Mandela himself published No Easy Walk to Freedom (1965).
Although Mandela was incarcerated continuously from 1963 until 1990, his reputation grew until his name became an internationally recognized symbol of the antiapartheid struggle in South Africa. His second wife, Winnie Mandela, campaigned tirelessly to keep the world from forgetting his plight, and she published Part of My Soul Went with Him in 1985. The following year Benson published a book-length biography of Mandela, and in 1988 an Indian South African scholar and political activist, Fatima Meer, published a fuller study, Higher Than Hope: The Authorized Biography of Nelson Mandela, which she wrote with Mandela’s help. Meanwhile, scholars, journalists, and political activists published countless articles about Mandela, who by then had captured the entire world’s attention. Thus, by the time that Mandela walked out of prison in February, 1990, the main outlines of his life had long been well known to the world.
In 1994 Mandela himself published a sizeable autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, a candid memoir that provided insights into his mind, particularly during his years as a prisoner. The 1990’s have seen a flood of new books on Mandela written for young readers, but Meredith’s Nelson Mandela is the first full-length adult biography since Meer’s. Meredith’s book is a welcome addition to the literature, but it is of interest more for its subject matter than for what Meredith himself brings to it.
A British journalist who became interested in South Africa during the 1990’s, Meredith drew heavily on Mandela’s autobiography to write his own book. He also drew on numerous other published sources (which he discusses at the end of his book), as well as his own interviews with Mandela and some of the principal persons in his life. Meredith is a fluid writer and competent journalist, but he offers no startling revelations or special insights into either Mandela or South Africa. What he does—and does very well—is tell the fullest story to date of Mandela’s life, lacing it with personal anecdotes gleaned from interviews. The book would be of greater value if it contained notes identifying Meredith’s sources; however, it compensates for that lack, to some extent, by being the first full biography to cover a substantial portion of Mandela’s presidency. Indeed, its last chapter, “Reinventing South Africa,” is its most valuable, as it sums up Mandela’s achievements during the first half of his five-year term as president.
The story of how Mandela rose from being reviled by South Africa’s white population as a saboteur and member of a disfranchised race to honored president of the country is so incredible, it merits a brief summary here.
Mandela was born in a remote Transkei village, a member of the Thembu branch of Xhosa-speaking peoples. As a member of the Thembu...
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