biography of Mandela ,
This is hardly the first serious biography of Mandela. There are already two ‘authorised’ biographies, both by friends of his, writers belonging to the same generation as their subject. Fatima Meer’s Higher than Hope was researched and written in the late 198os and published in 1988.1 Anthony Sampson’s Mandela was published in 1999.2 Martin Meredith’s equally perceptive and detailed treatment of Mandela’s life appeared in 1997.3 This book draws upon these writers’ work sub¬stantially, as well as using the same kinds of primary sources: corres¬pondence, Mandela’s own writings, interviews, and memoirs, court documents, and contemporary press reportage. My first acknow¬ledgements should therefore be to Fatima Meer, Anthony Sampson, and Martin Meredith. Their work will continue to represent essential foundations for any future assessments of Mandela’s career.
How is my treatment of Mandela’s life different from theirs? It is different in several ways. First of all, my understanding of Mandela’s childhood and youth is, I think, more complicated than in the other narratives about his beginnings. Mandela’s childhood was unusual because of his early departure from his mother’s household and his subsequent upbringing as the ward of a royal regent. Mandela’s emo-tional self-control as a personality, as well as his receptiveness to new ideas, is, I think, attributable to his upbringing in highly institutional-ised settings. Both at court and at school, Mandela absorbed principles of etiquette and chivalry that remained important precepts through his public life. They were principles that were reinforced by a sophis¬ticated literary culture that fused heroic African oral traditions with Victorian concepts of honour, propriety, and virtue. From his boy¬hood, Mandela’s life was shaped by ideas or values that were shared by rather than dividing his compatriots, black and white. In this context, the absence in his early life of intimidating or humiliating encounters with white people is significant, and, to an extent, distinguishes his childhood from many other black South African childhoods.
Understandably, Mandela’s role as a primary agent in enabling the achievement of South African political reconciliation is a key theme in later projections of his life. Mandela’s autobiography, published in 1994, emphasises his own experience of empathy and even kindness across South Africa’s historic social and political fault lines, experi¬ence that could reinforce a project of new nation building. The tact¬ful omissions in his own testimony when it is compared with other histories of his life should remind us that autobiography is not always good history and Mandela’s own words about his own life should be read as critically as any other source. Even so, my book does cite plenty of contemporary evidence to suggest that Mandela’s willing¬ness to embrace all his compatriots as citizens was sustained by profes¬sional protocols and codes of behaviour. Even in the increasingly polarised climate of South Africa in the 1950s, these ideas about social conduct could transcend racial identity and they reinforced the decorous manners and patrician conventions that Mandela had maintained from home and school.
I find less of a contrast than other writers between the young Mandela and the older veteran of imprisonment. Generally in Mandela’s career there are no sudden turning points; rather key decisions develop out of lengthy incremental processes of thought, and are often influenced by Mandela’s recollection of precedent. One especially significant instance of the continuities in his political beliefs was his conviction that reasoned discussion would eventually broker what he himself would eventually describe as a ‘legal revolution’. Legal training and practice had a crucial impact upon Mandela’s political development. In general, historians of anti-colonial move¬ments have paid insufficient attention to the influence of colonial legal ideas on African nationalist leadership. Mandela’s life is an espe¬cially striking demonstration of the ways in which ideas about human rights and civic obligations were shaped by his professional training. Most importantly, the structured world of courtroom procedure itself shaped Mandela’s political practice, restraining it even in its most theatrically insurgent phases, and reinforcing his respect for institutions, traditions, and history.
The language of theatre is used quite commonly among Mandela’s biographers, but in this book one of my particular preoccupations is with Mandela’s political actions as performance, self-consciously planned, scripted to meet public expectations, or calculated to shift popular sentiment. Birth, upbringing, emotional self-sufficiency from an early age, social grace, imposing appearance, and elite status com-bined to encourage in Mandela an unusual assurance about his des-tiny as a leader, a ‘sense of his power’ to shape his own life that seems to have been shared by those around him. For Mandela, politics has always been primarily about enacting stories, about making narra¬tives, primarily about morally exemplary conduct, and only secondar¬ily about ideological vision, more about means rather than ends. In the South Africa of the early apartheid era, Mandela was one of the first media politicians, ‘showboy’ as one of his contemporaries nick¬named him, embodying a glamour and a style that projected visually a brave new African world of modernity and freedom. Mandela’s ascent as a politician and as a member of black Johannesburg’s high society occurred at a time of more general upward mobility among black South Africans and early sections of this book explore in some detail the social setting in which Mandela became a public personality.
Mandela was especially sensitive to the imperatives for acting out a messianic leadership role during his short service as a guerrilla com-mander, a phase in which he and his comrades deliberately set out to construct a mythological legitimacy for their political authority, and in which they could engender hopes among their compatriots that salvation would be achieved through their own heroic self-sacrifice. From this perspective, their strategic and tactical decisions become more explicable. It was an approach that was rewarded several decades later when both Mandela and the movement around him exploited his iconic and celebrity prestige to endorse political compromise that may otherwise have been popularly unacceptable. In this book, I maintain that Mandela’s prestige, his moral capital as it were, was the consequence of an exceptional public status that began to develop very early in Mandela’s career, well before his imprisonment.
His moral standing as a leader was enormously enhanced by his imprisonment, of course, although the reasons for his ascendancy as an international public hero during his years on Robben Island are by no means straightforward. In my own treatment of Mandela’s life in prison I underline the extent to which the prisoners became an organised community—here I was helped by Fran Buntman’s superb monograph4 as well as a rich range of memoirs from Mandela’s fellow prisoners. Within this community, Mandela was accorded a particular status. He was accorded this status by the prisoners and also, as importantly, by the officials who governed the prison. This highly structured world of the prison may have been a crucial environmental setting in helping Mandela to preserve his commitment to orderly political process, a commitment that contrasted sharply with the more apocalyptic perceptions of many of his contemporaries during the 197os and 198os.
Imprisoned leaders can be supplanted by fresh generations of poli-ticians at liberty, however, and what was remarkable about Mandela’s authority was its endurance over generations and, moreover, his incorporation into an international iconography assembled by young people at the beginning of the 199os. I do not find organisational explanations for Mandela’s continuing influence very persuasive, those explanations, for example that focus on the channels of com-munications between the Robben Islanders and their followers else-where. Instead, the sources of Mandela’s appeal were then, and to an extent remain today, charismatic and cultural, to do with his apparent immortality despite or even because of his removal and absence, a product of the stories enacted by him and told about him, and the particular power of these stories to reach a multiplicity of audiences inside and beyond South Africa. His especial accessibility to a trans-national English-speaking following was the consequence of his own personification of the secular liberal values instilled in his ‘English’ schooling. Also, perhaps more importantly, it was an effect of his marriage to a remarkably talented leader in her own right who helped keep his authority in currency. In prison, especially, popular projections of his life become intertwined with Winnie Madikizela’s story, and the couple’s very public exemplification of romantic love and sexual intimacy accentuated Mandela’s appeal outside South Africa.
As his former wife’s contribution to Mandela’s authority demon-strates, Mandela’s domestic or private life cannot easily be separated or compartmentalised from his political or public career. For Man-dela, the commitments and obligations that arise from kinship and community often intersect with his politics, despite his occasional efforts to resist them and notwithstanding his own self-acknowledged shortcomings as a husband and a father. Indeed he may have experienced such commitments as all the more morally compelling and the more emotionally comforting because of the disrupted history of his domestic affairs. The social connections pro¬vided by kinship networks remained important to Mandela even after his arrival in Johannesburg. Initially, of course, they supplied him with important sources of support and solidarity. Throughout his political career Mandela maintained at least a qualified sense of obligation to his aristocratic kinsfolk, despite the disapproval that this aroused among his more Jacobean comrades. His attachment to the values associated with family and clan remain evident today in his quite genuine delight on encountering children, but these values shape his politics in a much more profound way. For in Mandela’s thinking there is a tension between two sets of ideas about democracy.
In many of his most formal expositions about his civic beliefs—his prepared speeches and addresses—he uses the vocabulary associated with the conventional institutions of liberal government, the ‘ordin¬ary democracy’ as Mandela has called it that organises and regulates difference, and in doing so maintains adversaries as competitors. Such professions by Mandela of his belief in liberal institutions are quite sincere. But in the same discourses there appear references to a quite different consensual model of decision-making. Here Mandela finds his inspiration in idealised recollections of pre-colonial African prac¬tice in which rulers encourage unity through presiding over dis¬cursive or deliberative practices. In this model, agreement is facilitated through a set of principles linked to ideas about obligation, to family, to friends, and to clan and nation. Mandela’s extraordinary loyalty to a political movement is partly an expression of this patrimonial associ¬ation of concepts of family, community, citizenship, and democracy.This conflation of these concepts is sometimes, although not always, evident in his political thinking and practice.
In a very general sense, preoccupations about social obligations, about manners, about how people should behave, and about what is proper constitute the key concerns in Nelson Mandela’s politics. His willingness to acknowledge goodness where he finds it is a capacity that is nurtured by caring ‘about the little things in life’, to quote the words of Graca Machel, his third wife. Over and over again in this book’s narrative, Mandela draws moral and political sustenance from encounters in which everyday courtesy, consideration, and even gen-erosity soften conflict. The lessons that Mandela learned as a child about the importance of defeating one’s opponents without humiliat-ing them were deeply engrained. They shaped a politics of grace and honour that, notwithstanding its conservatism, was probably the only politics that could have enabled South Africa’s relatively peaceful transition to democracy, a transition that more than a decade later appears to have resulted in a stable constitutional order.
In this book I have been able to exploit a rich range of biographical and autobiographical writing about Mandela and his contemporaries. Aside from the intellectual debts that I owe to the authors of these works, I am also grateful for other more personal kinds of help that I have received during my research and writing. For help in locating archival materials I am very grateful to: Michele Pickover, Carol Archibald, and Kate Abbott of the Historical Papers Section, Cullen Library, University of the Witwatersrand; Marcelle Graham and Diana Madden of the Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg; Verne Harris of the Nelson Mandela Foundation; and Gerrit Wage¬ner, Zahira Adams, and Natalie Skomolo at the National Archives of South Africa, Pretoria. Robert Edgar drew my attention to Mandela’s first published article as well as a file of early correspondence between Mandela and the Bantu Welfare Trust. Luli Callinicos allowed me access to the transcript of her interview with Mandela, enabling me to obtain fresh insights about his legal practice and his friendship with Oliver Tambo; Barbara Harmel’s and Philip Bonner’s interviews with Umkhonto veterans conducted on behalf of the Albert Einstein Insti¬tute’s South African Civil Society Project also constituted a major. (suite…)
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