Long Walk to Freedom

Reviewed by Glenn Frankel
Sunday, December 24, 2006


A Critical Life

By Tom Lodge

Oxford Univ. 274 pp. $26


The Authorized Portrait

Andrews McMeel. 355 pp. $50

"A leader is like a shepherd," Nelson Mandela proclaimed more than a decade ago in his autobiography. "There are times when a leader must move out ahead of his flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people in the right way."

It's an arrogant statement -- could any other democratically elected politician get away with equating his constituents with sheep? -- and yet supremely apt. For Mandela is arguably the greatest political leader of our time, the one person worthy of mention alongside FDR, Churchill and Gandhi. Mandela led the political and moral crusade for majority rule in South Africa against a white supremacist police state, risking his life, surrendering his personal freedom and his family's well-being. He spent 27 years in prison only to emerge as a wise, dynamic and conciliatory figure binding black and white together as father of his nation and inspiration for the world.

The danger, of course, is that in extolling Mandela's virtues, it's all too easy to turn him into a saint -- worshipped and untouchable and therefore of no practical value as a guide for our own behavior -- and to lose track of the flawed, flesh-and-blood human being whom we can learn from and seek to emulate. As George Orwell once warned, "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent."

Tom Lodge's Mandela: A Critical Life is an attempt to rescue the real man -- virtues and blemishes alike -- from the frozen wasteland of sainthood. Lodge is a political scientist who has spent his professional life rigorously and fearlessly charting the complex and treacherous crosscurrents of South African political life, from the apartheid era to the age of black rule. While he is a white liberal with enormous personal sympathy for the cause of black liberation, he has never hesitated to write critically and analytically about black politics and politicians.

After serving more than 27 years, Nelson Mandela walks free from Victor Verster prison, his fist held high, in February 1990.
After serving more than 27 years, Nelson Mandela walks free from Victor Verster prison, his fist held high, in February 1990.( - AP)
This is a dry, brisk and authoritative account that always seeks to place Mandela's decisions in their political context. Lodge emphasizes how Mandela's values were shaped by a childhood in rural Transkei, where he learned Victorian principles of self-control, etiquette, chivalry and independence at Methodist-run schools and developed a lifelong respect for British laws and principles. His upbringing in royal Transkeian society shielded the child from humiliating encounters with whites, allowing the adult to be less scarred and more magnanimous. Lodge draws a clear line connecting the young, colorful and impetuous Mandela, who was a sharp dresser and a handsome ladies' man, with the older prison veteran. "There are no sudden turning points," Lodge insists.

From the beginning of his career, Mandela has conducted himself as a public figure, has sought celebrity and has used his personal charisma as a political tool. Lodge focuses on Mandela's self-consciously theatrical approach to politics, arguing that he was one of South Africa's first media politicians -- always aware of the camera and the audience, constructing his own myth and acting out a narrative of messianic leadership. When he stood before the judge at his trial for sabotage in 1963, under the shadow of the hangman, Mandela did not flinch from the role that he had written for himself. He delivered a four-hour speech from the dock that was at once defiant and conciliatory, declaring that he was opposed to either white or black domination and championed equality: "It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Lodge is following in the footsteps of three major Mandela biographies, including the former president's own Long Walk to Freedom, co-written with Richard Stengel of Time magazine. Each of the three -- the others are by Anthony Sampson and Martin Meredith -- is as thick as a doorstop, written in a magisterial style, with a tendency to salute certain myths about the man and his mission. Lodge's writing style is more pedestrian, sometimes bordering on the seriously academic, but his analysis is often deeper and tougher.

Ultimately, writes Lodge, Mandela's adherence to simple virtues -- social obligations, manners and proper behavior -- produced "a politics of grace and honor that, notwithstanding its conservatism, was probably the only politics that could have enabled South Africa's relatively peaceful transition to democracy." In that long march, there was no bloodbath, no last stand by white militants, no Armageddon. No one deserves more credit for this than Nelson Mandela.

At first glance, the other book under review, Mandela: The Authorized Portrait, looks like pure, unembarrassed hagiography, the kind of coffee table tome that opens with encomiums from former president Bill Clinton and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and goes on to a series of celebrity guest appearances from the likes of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Tony Blair, Sidney Poitier and Bono. But that first impression is misleading because the narrative text by Mike Nicol is rich and nuanced, the historical documents revealing and the photographs thrilling and evocative. The overhead shot of black South Africans crowding outside the Johannesburg Drill Hall in 1956 for a glimpse of Mandela and other defendants in the original mass Treason Trial is itself worth the price of admission, as is a photo of the open graves for the 69 victims of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. These images, interspersed among intimate portraits of Mandela, are a reminder that the man and the nation are forever entwined.

Glenn Frankel is a former southern Africa bureau chief for The Washington Post and the author of "Rivonia's Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa." He is currently the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University.

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