25 July, 2011Issue 16.6AfricaPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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The Monument and the Man

Charne Lavery

Young MandelaDavid James Smith
Young Mandela
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010
368 Pages
ISBN 978-0297855248


Mandela is a name as recognisable as Coca-Cola, and yet the ingredients of his inner life are almost as much of a secret. Strategically chosen as the face of a struggle for majority rights in South Africa, he became an adroit manipulator of his image and life story. His autobiography, originally written in tiny script on Robben Island, is as much an exercise in nation building as confession, and the many biographies which followed have been largely consistent with the representation of his life as a journey, a national allegory. Throughout the world, his name suggests forgiveness, negotiation, sacrifice, and peace. As is to be expected, more attention has been paid to his role as father of the nation than, simply, as father.

Journalist David James Smith’s new biography, Young Mandela, attempts to redress that imbalance. While detractors may suggest that it is a work of belated mud-slinging, it intends instead to chip away at the pedestal, to understand something of the personal life behind the legend—the hard choices, good intentions, hurts, loves, and slip-ups. Justifying the addition of his biography to the reams of writing on Mandela, Smith outlines the twist to his tale: “My plan was to rescue the sainted Madiba from the dry pages of history, to strip away the myth and create a fresh portrait of a rounded human being.” This, he says, involves the dual project of discovering the impact of Mandela’s personality on his political work, and the impact of his public life on those closest to him.

Through a number of revealing vignettes, the biography composes a picture of the leader’s early day-to-day life—his penchant for smart clothes (the background to the famous Madiba shirts of the 90s), his tendency to fall into debt, his appreciation for good-looking women. It portrays vividly the stress of trying to run a law firm, a family, and a growing political organisation, the African National Congress (ANC), and describes the friends from all sides of the colour line who helped out with money and curries. The young Mandela is headstrong and ambitious, leaving the patronage of his chiefly uncle in order to escape an arranged marriage and follow his cousin to Alexandra, the Johannesburg township known as the “Dark City”. Caught between tradition and modernity, he marries a religious woman from his hometown, Evelyn, before beginning to live for a brief period, by his own rare—perhaps unique—admission, “a thoroughly immoral life”. He eventually falls for Winnie, a stunningly beautiful woman half his age, who remains, as Smith remarks, “by common consent, the great love of his life.”

It is this side of Mandela—the womaniser, snappy dresser, and workaholic—that Smith’s biography unfolds, alongside the better known qualities of intelligence, discipline, and integrity. Mandela, brought up in the male-dominated chiefly house, is, as his friend and former biographer Fatima Meer describes him, “patriarchal—very patriarchal”. His handling of family matters—sending money from Robben Island for Evelyn’s children via his new young wife Winnie—is authoritarian, revealing the influence both of his patrician upbringing and of his Victorian-style schooling. As Smith writes, “Mandela, a true democrat, was renowned for his listening skills, taking everyone’s opinion into account. In domestic matters, by the sound of it, he took a more dictatorial stance.”

In addition to these apparent contradictions in Mandela’s personality, Smith is interested in all that which is perhaps “an inevitable consequence of Mandela’s devotion to the struggle”: the collateral damage inflicted upon those involuntarily drawn into the thick of revolutionary life. Mandela’s eldest son Thembi is perhaps the most tragic figure in the biography, even if his story is only vaguely outlined. Having become increasingly estranged from Mandela after he divorced Evelyn, Thembi ran a shebeen—an illegal beer hall—in Cape Town, never visiting his father on Robben Island even though it was only a short boat ride away. He died in a car accident in 1969. It seems that not much more is known about him, but that the issues that plagued him were the same in kind, if not degree, that plagued all of Mandela’s children.

Zindzi, Mandela’s daughter by Winnie, describes how,

All of us—Madiba’s kids—have had rocky relationships. I filed twice for divorce, tried again, it fell apart. My sister was also having difficulties, she’s separated now. Makgatho also had a second marriage. There’s a pattern here.

Zindzi and the other children suffered “years of isolation and harassment”, while Winnie lost her prominent job as the first black female social worker and had to struggle to make ends meet while under almost continuous police surveillance. During her and Mandela’s pre-marriage negotiations, and a few years before her husband was finally arrested, Winnie’s older sister and grandmother had tried to convince her not to go through with it, saying: “You are going to look after that man’s children. All he wants is a maid to look after his children while he’s in prison.” While Winnie became an important, and notorious, political player in her own right, there is a sense in which this chilling prophesy came true.

The harshness of interview quotations like these is softened somewhat by Smith’s constant reminders of Mandela’s undisputed political and moral achievements. Also, importantly, the biographer foregrounds his sources: the new interviews conducted with family members are contrasted with earlier interviews, making it clear that both past wounds and current resentments have shaped the narrative. Nevertheless, the biography is flawed. The style of the writing is dry and somewhat hasty, and at times the emphasis on the amateurishness of the early ANC is heavy-handed. In addition, Smith rarely dwells on matters of class, which underlie and complicate issues of race in South Africa. For example, in describing the rural conditions of Mandela’s Eastern Cape childhood as picturesque but desperate, Smith invokes no sense of the historical causes, British-mandated, of land dispossession and overcrowding: “Although it looks like a gentle and unchanging way of life in a glorious landscape, for most people it was back then, as it continues to be today, a struggle to survive. From early in the twentieth century many people, mostly men at first, began flocking to the city of Johannesburg in search of prospects”. The “early twentieth century” may more helpfully have been specified as the Union (British-Afrikaans) government’s Natives’ Land Act of 1913, which made black ownership of land illegal.

Nevertheless, the biography provides an antidote to the kind of popular book that gives godlike, fateful status to Mandela (refer to the number of apocalyptic works titled something like “After Mandela”). Its value is captured by a dialogue presented in the biography as an aside. Smith recounts here a conversation that took place between Bram Fischer, Mandela’s lawyer for the famous Rivonia Trial, and his protégé, George Bizos.

George Bizos prepared Fischer’s defence after his 1965 arrest and could not help asking him, had it all been worth it, sacrificing his career and his family to the cause?
Fischer rounded on him.
Had he asked Mandela that question? Didn’t he have a legal practice and a family too?
Bizos had not asked Mandela.
“Well, then, don’t ask me,” snapped Fischer.

In Smith’s words, Mandela is “the world’s elder statesman, perhaps our greatest living beacon of moral authority”. Asking these questions of Mandela—about the value of his sacrifices and the effects of the sacrifices imposed on those closest to him—allows us to ask them of others, and ourselves; they are questions vital for all those interested in the study or pursuit of the public good.

Charne Lavery is studying for a DPhil in English at Balliol College, Oxford.