There is a feast of good books about South Africa and by South Africans, from novels by Nadine Gordimer and Zakes Mda to histories by Leonard Thompson and Noel Mostert to Charles van Onselen’s studies of the country’s late-19th-century gold rush, which helped shapemodern South Africa. Among books about Nelson Mandela and his legacy, here are five top choices:
Mandela: The Authorized Biography, by Anthony Sampson (2000). A reader should take any authorized biography with a pinch of skepticism, especially one written when the subject is still alive. Even in the best of lives — and it would be hard to find one more exemplary than Mandela’s — there are stories that someone doesn’t authorize being told. Nonetheless, this is a book well worth reading: The late Anthony Sampson was a fine British journalist who worked in South Africa as a young man, returned there often and knew Mandela so well that he reportedly helped draft the famous speech the leader gave in court as he was about to be sentenced to life in prison.
Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela (1994). A reader should have even more skepticism about any politician’s autobiography, especially one published on the eve of an election. In 1994, when South Africans of all colors were able to go to the polls for the first time, Mandela was eager, in this book, to reassure the white population that his presidency would not be one of hatred and revenge. But he was deeply sincere in this, and despite its predictable bows to political allies, this memoir of an extraordinary man’s life, in the way he wanted to tell it, is an important historical document.
After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa, by Douglas Foster (2012). Penetrating and untainted by any mythmaking, this is by far the most interesting book about South Africa published in the past five or 10 years. An American, Foster managed to get deep into aspects of present-day South Africa that foreign correspondents seldom have time for, such as the life history and daily routine of a young Cape Town street criminal, the often-troubled lives of the new black elite’s children and grandchildren, and the sometimes bitter rivalries among black and brown South Africans.
Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa, by Allister Sparks (2003). This account by a veteran South African journalist is slightly dated and is a somewhat more optimistic picture than we might have today, but Sparks knows his country thoroughly. And he is wise enough to understand the vast difference between political democracy and economic justice — and what a huge distance South Africa has to cover to achieve the latter.
Dinosaurs, Diamonds & Democracy: A Short, Short History of South Africa, by Francis Wilson (2011). You can’t understand Mandela or today’s South Africa without looking at the entire history of this complex, fascinating country and at the dreams of land and quick riches that have done so much to determine its course. This is a highly readable, quick survey, profusely illustrated, by a distinguished South African economist, Protestant layman and social-justice activist.