One of Nelson Mandela's closest friends and colleagues, Joe Slovo, noted in 1994 that "Without Mandela South African history would have taken a completely different turn." Mandela's appeal was as a moral leader who sought unity and justice, reconciliation and forgiveness (but not forgetting). His many laudable personal qualities—including dignity, charm, loyalty, and a willingness to be conciliatory, combined with his inherent optimism about human nature and a shrewd and insightful intelligence—helped him to succeed in establishing democracy in South Africa. Above all, as Anthony Sampson makes clear in his outstanding new study, Mandela: The Authorized Biography, Mandela is a master politician who has understood what needed to be done and how to do it to achieve short-term objectives and long-term goals.
Sampson, a noted British journalist and author of many books, including The Anatomy of Britain, met Mandela in 1951 when Sampson was editor of the black South African magazine Drum. Like others through the years, at least once Sampson underestimated his subject. In writing a book at the 1957 Treason Trial, Sampson focused on other prominent African National Congress Leaders, "but not Mandela; I thought he was too detached to be a future leader, and would be less forthcoming." What Sampson failed to notice was that even at that early stage "the defense lawyers noticed that he had a quiet authority over his fellows, who often sought his legal advice; and his own testimony would reveal how deeply he considered his commitment to the cause."
To understand Mandela it is important to appreciate his commitment to the African National Congress, the country's oldest (founded in 1912) and largest anti-apartheid organization. "Loyalty to an organization," he says, "takes precedence over loyalty to an individual." A Canadian diplomat pointed out in 1953: "The ANC is a great deal more than a political party. Representing as it does the great majority of articulate Africans in the Union, it is almost the parliament of a nation. A nation without a state, perhaps, but it is as a nation that the Africans increasingly think of themselves."
Sampson makes a strong case for his belief that Mandela's 27 years of imprisonment was "the key to his development, transforming the headstrong activist into the reflective and self-disciplined world statesman." During that difficult period Mandela was not only a role model for other prisoners, but, in a sense, the leader of a government in exile.
Mandela's devotion to the cause led to painful relationships with members of his own family; his political commitment "was at the expense of the people I knew and loved most."
Sampson explores both the public and private Mandela in this "authorized" biography. It is authorized in that Mandela gave the author personal interviews, "reading the draft typescripts and correcting points of fact and detail," but not interfering with the author's judgments.
This book perfectly complements Mandela's own autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, published in 1994. It allows us to see Mandela through the eyes of others and brings the story up to the present. Sampson was given access to important papers, including Mandela's unpublished prison diary. He interviewed hundreds of people who have known the subject, and the result is a balanced portrait of a man who is, in his own words, "no angel." One example: "He has been right about one big issue where so many have been wrong. His persistence had a difficult downside: he could be very stubborn in thinking he was right about everything, and sometimes loyal to doubtful allies who brought him much criticism. But his loyalty to his own principles and friends gave him the edge over other world leaders who had forgotten what they stood for."
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.