The Authorized Biography

By Anthony Sampson

Knopf. 672 pp. $30

Reviewed by Glenn Frankel

In his first days as president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela launched a remarkable charm offensive against his former enemies. In short order, the former political prisoner invited to the president's house the prosecutor who had sent him to prison 30 years earlier, the warden of Robben Island and the wives of the nation's former prime ministers -- champions of apartheid all. He also hosted a reunion for his law school classmates, even though many of them had shunned him during his years there because he was black.

It's easy to attribute this amazing performance to Mandela's almost saintlike willingness to forgive, if not forget. But the singular achievement of Anthony Sampson's new biography is that the author goes beyond this to find other, more ruthlessly pragmatic reasons for these benevolent gestures. In embracing his foes, Mandela was acknowledging that the country needed the participation of the whites who controlled most of its economy. At the same time, Sampson writes, Mandela knew that the more he reached out to his enemies, the more he divided them. "You never quite know," one of Mandela's colleagues told Sampson, "whether he's a saint or a Machiavelli."

Sampson's biography is the third extended portrait of Mandela to appear in recent years, each of them satisfying in different ways. Long Walk to Freedom (1994), Mandela's autobiography, a collaboration with journalist Richard Stengel, is powerfully written and captures the man's own voice and thought process. Martin Meredith's Nelson Mandela (1998) is thorough and engaging, although less intimate. Sampson's book, in effect, seeks to combine the two. It is an authorized account, in the sense that Mandela gave him total access to documents and private papers, and reviewed the manuscript. But Sampson says Mandela made no attempt to alter the author's conclusions. This is in large part a measure of the trust that Sampson -- a veteran British journalist and author who first met Mandela in 1951 -- enjoys not only with the retired president but also with many others who were involved in the freedom movement. Because he knows Mandela and his comrades so well, Sampson brings a depth of knowledge and emotion to retelling their story that makes this work a special addition.

On its surface, the tale Sampson tells is by now a familiar one. He traces Mandela's rise -- from the barefoot ward of a tribal regent to a rebellious young student, to his coming to Johannesburg in 1941, to his becoming one of the few black lawyers in South Africa, to his leadership role in the anti-apartheid struggle. Sampson recounts Mandela's arrest and trial and 27 years of imprisonment and, finally, his release in 1990 and the extraordinary moral courage he displayed in shepherding South Africa to majority rule.

But as Sampson makes clear from the outset, his purpose in retelling the Mandela legend is to find ways to get both behind and beyond it. "The myth is so powerful that it blurs the realities, turning everything into show business," he writes. What he's really after is the man, not the myth.

"I'm no angel," Mandela tells Sampson, and indeed the author portrays him as a towering but flawed figure. Sampson's Mandela is self-sacrificing, stoic and courageous but also hidebound, harsh, bullheaded and frosty. "He still seems to keep his prison cell inside him, protecting him from the outside world, controlling his emotions, providing a philosopher's detachment," Sampson observes.

Mandela started in politics as a talented but arrogant tough guy, suspicious of all whites and quick to resort to his fists. When a security policeman warned him, "You are playing with fire," Mandela replied, "Playing with fire is my game."

The long years of prison helped transform Mandela into a more tolerant and careful leader. He learned how to bend at times without losing his dignity. Sampson recounts how Mandela refused to wear short pants during his first weeks in prison, and was dispatched to solitary confinement: "He suffered it for a few weeks, tormented by lonely recriminations, until he decided he preferred companionship to trousers."

In prison Mandela learned how to relate to all kinds of people -- black and white, prisoners and guards -- and how to control them. Eventually, by strength of character and will, he turned his warders into his dependents. Even in the darkest days, Sampson writes, "he was already seeing the prison as a microcosm of a future South Africa, where reconciliation would be essential to survival."

Sampson is at his best when describing moments in which he himself was an eyewitness. He captures well the cultural renaissance in Soweto and other black townships surrounding Johannesburg in the 1950s, "bursting with energy and ambition" despite their poverty. At the time, Sampson was editor of Drum, a lively black weekly that was a key participant in this surge. He's also good at offering diplomatic asides, describing what the British and American embassies were saying and doing at crucial times in South Africa's modern history.

On some of the small remaining mysteries of South Africa's recent past, Sampson fails to bring us much closer to solutions. He doesn't resolve the question of the CIA's role in helping the security police track down and arrest Mandela in 1962. And he doesn't quite put to rest the charge that Mandela became a member of the underground communist party.

Still, he succeeds well in his larger purpose -- to bring to life the flesh-and-blood man who emerged from prison not trapped in the past but rather, as Nadine Gordimer put it, the "personification of the future." Despite the flaws -- indeed, because of them -- the real Mandela is far more worthy of our attention and admiration than the myth.

Glenn Frankel, editor of the Washington Post Magazine, is author of "Rivonia's Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa."