Saints rarely go into politics, and they pretty much never come out of it. The great 20th-century exception to that rule is Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress leader who spent 27 years cooped up in the prisons of white supremacist South Africa and emerged in 1990 astonishingly free of bitterness toward his captors. Four years later, apartheid was dead; in May 1994, he became the first person, black or white, to be democratically elected as president of what could finally be referred to without irony as the Republic of South Africa.

The speeches of the man universally known in South Africa as "Madiba" (his Xhosa clan name, which literally means grandfather) have been collected in Nelson Mandela: In His Own Words (Little, Brown, $28.95). Sometimes soaring, sometimes stern, they chart Mandela's busy life, from helping found the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"), to a presidency spent building what his inaugural address called "a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world." South Africa's challenges are far from over, however; this volume features no fewer than seven speeches on HIV/AIDS, which the United Nations says afflicts in excess of 5 million South Africans -- more than any other country. The old man has shown a taboo-breaking frankness here that differs sharply from the approach taken by his successor, Thabo Mbeki, who rarely talks about AIDS and has suggested that factors other than HIV cause the disease. There's a very personal reason for what may prove one of Mandela's last acts of courage; his eldest son, Makgatho, died of the disease in January at the age of 54.

Most of the rest of the continent has known less inspiring leadership. In his sweeping The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence (PublicAffairs, $35), longtime Africa hand Martin Meredith charts the dashing of the high hopes that accompanied the departure of Europe's empires. He's struck by "the extent to which African states have suffered so many of the same misfortunes": bankrupt economies, civil tensions, crushing debt, rampant corruption. Behind them all too often lurks a glum pattern of autocratic politics; Meredith's focus on African leadership shows the trajectory from flawed titans in the independence era (Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, Tanzania's Julius Nyerere) to tinpot dictators (Congo's Mobutu Sese Seko, Uganda's Idi Amin, Libya's Moammar Gaddafi) and cruel warlords (Liberia's Charles Taylor) in its sour aftermath. "System? What system?" snorted Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's founding president, when asked about his country's political system. "I am the system!" And, one might add, a fair bit of the problem.

-- Warren Bass