Mandela; The Authorized Biographyby Anthony Sampson
The Life of Nelson Mandela is one of the most extraordinary epics of the twentieth century. An almost-forgotten prisoner on Robben Island twenty years ago, apparently doomed to a helpless existence as a victim of apartheid, he not only survived but almost single-handedly saved South Africa from potential chaos, to become one of the most widely admired leaders in the world. Mandela's myth is dazzling; in this magnificent biography Anthony Sampson penetrates it to show us the man himself.
Sampson has known Mandela since 1951. He was given Mandela's complete cooperation, including access to twenty-seven years' worth of unpublished correspondence from prison and many other private documents--even the original draft of Mandela's prison autobiography, long thought to be lost. He interviewed virtually every significant living figure associated with Mandela, from childhood schoolmates to Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie, to former president F. W. de Klerk. Mandela himself checked and annotated the manuscript, but Sampson was left free to make his own judgments about the man, which he has done with refreshing candor. The result is wonderfully revealing and objective.
London Review of Books
London Review of Books
- Knopf Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
Whites were hardly visible at Mqhekezweni, except for occasional passersby. Mandela's sister Mabel remembers being impressed when he and his schoolfriends met a white man who needed help because his motorbike had broken down, and Mandela was able to speak to him in English.11 But Mabel could also be quite frightened of Mandela: "He didn't like to be provoked. If you provoked him he would tell you directly. . . . He had no time to fool around. We could see he had leadership qualities."
A crucial part of Mandela's education lay in observing the Regent. He was fascinated by Jongintaba's exercise of his kingship at the periodic tribal meetings, to which Tembu people would travel scores of miles on foot or on horseback. Mandela loved to watch the tribesmen, whether laborers or landowners, as they complained candidly and often fiercely to the Regent, who listened for hours impassively and silently, until finally at sunset he tried to produce a consensus from the contrasting views. Later, in jail, Mandela would reflect:
One of the marks of a great chief is the ability to keep together all sections of his people, the traditionalists and reformers, conservatives and liberals, and on major questions there are sometimes sharp differences of opinion. The Mqhekezweni court was particularly strong, and the Regent was able to carry the whole community because the court was representative of all shades of opinion.
As President, Mandela would seek to reach the same kind of consensus in cabinet; and he would always remember Jongintaba's advice that a leader should be like a shepherd, directing his flock from behind by skillful persuasion: "If one or two animalsstray, you go out and draw them back to the flock," he would say. "That's an important lesson in politics."
Mandela was brought up with the African notion of human brotherhood, or ubuntu, which described a quality of mutual responsibility and compassion. He often quoted the proverb "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu," which he would translate as "A person is a person because of other people," or "You can do nothing if you don't get the support of other people." This was a concept common to other rural communities around the world, but Africans would define it more sharply as a contrast to the individualism and restlessness of whites, and over the following decades ubuntu would loom large in black politics. As Archbishop Tutu defined it in 1986: "It refers to gentleness, to compassion, to hospitality, to openness to others, to vulnerability, to be available to others and to know that you are bound up with them in the bundle of life."
Mandela regarded ubuntu as part of the general philosophy of serving one's fellowmen. From his adolescence, he recalled, he was viewed as being unusually ready to see the best in others. To him this was a natural inheritance: "People like ourselves brought up in a rural atmosphere get used to interacting with people at an early age." But he conceded that "It may be a combination of instinct and deliberate planning." In any case, it was to become a prevailing principle throughout his political career: "People are human beings, produced by the society in which they live. You encourage people by seeing good in them."
Mandela's admiration for tribal traditions and democracy was reinforced by the Xhosa history that he picked up from visiting old chiefs and headmen. Many of them were illiterate, but they were masters of the oral tradition, declaiming the epics of past battles like Homeric bards. The most vivid storyteller, Chief Joyi, like Mandela a descendant of the great King Ngubengcuka, described how the unity and peace of the Xhosa people had been broken by the coming of the white men, who had divided them, dispossessed them and undermined their ubuntu. Mandela would often look back to this idealized picture of African tribal society. He described it in a long speech in 1962, shortly before he began his prison sentence:
"Then our people lived peacefully, under the democratic rule of their kings and their amapakati, and moved freely and confidently up and down the country without let or hindrance. Then the country was ours, in our own name and right. We occupied the land, the forests, the rivers; we extracted the mineral wealth below the soil and all the riches of this beautiful country. We set up and operated our own government, we controlled our own armies and we organized our own trade and commerce."
It was, in his eyes, a golden age without classes, exploitation or inequality, in which the tribal council was a model of democracy:
The council was so completely democratic that all members of the tribe could participate in its deliberations. Chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, all took part and endeavoured to influence its decisions. It was so weighty and influential a body that no step of any importance could ever be taken by the tribe without reference to it.
The history of the Xhosas was very much alive when Mandela was a child, and old men could remember the time when they were still undefeated. The pride and autonomy of the Transkei and its Xhosa-speaking tribes--the Tembus, the Pondos, the Fingoes and the Xhosas themselves--had survived despite the humiliations of conquest and subjection over the previous century.
Some Xhosas had intermarried with other peoples, including the Khoikhoi (called "Hottentots" by white settlers), which helped to give a wide variety to their physical features: Mandela's own distinctive face, with his narrow eyes and strong cheekbones, has sometimes been explained by Khoikhoi blood. But the Xhosas retained their distinctive culture and language. Many white colonists who first encountered them in the late eighteenth century were impressed by their physique, their light skin and sensitive faces, and their democratic system of debate and government: "They are equal to any English lawyers in discussing questions which relate to their own laws and customs," wrote the missionary William Holden in 1866. In the 1830s the British Commander Harry Smith called the Xhosa King Hintsa "the very image of poor dear George IV."
But, over the course of a hundred years and nine Xhosa wars, the British forces moving east from the Cape gradually deprived the Xhosas of their independence and their land. By 1835 Harry Smith had crossed the river Kei to begin the subjugation of the Transkei. By 1848 he had imposed his own English system on the Xhosa chiefs, informing them that their land "shall be divided into counties, towns and villages, bearing English names. You shall all learn to speak English at the schools which I shall establish for you. . . . You may no longer be naked and wicked barbarians which you will ever be unless you labour and become industrious." In the eighth Xhosa war in 1850 the British Army--after setbacks which strained it to its limit and atrocities committed by both sides--drove the Xhosa chiefs out of their mountain fastnesses and firmly occupied "British Kaffraria," later called the Ciskei. The Tembu chiefs who ruled the southern part of the Transkei had been relatively unscathed by the earlier wars, but now they were subjugated and sent to the terrible prison on Robben Island, just off the coast from Cape Town, which became notorious in Xhosa folklore.
After this humiliation and impoverishment, in 1856 the Xhosas accomplished their own self-destruction. A young prophetess, Nongqawuse, told them to kill all their cattle and to prepare for a resurrection. As a result, over half the population of the Ciskei starved to death. By the end of the ninth Xhosa war in 1878 the two chief houses of the Xhosa people, the Ngqika and the Gcaleka, had been subjugated and were forced into a new exodus across the Kei. Successive leaders were sent to Robben Island, in keeping with the order of Sir George Grey, the Governor of the Cape, "for the submission of every chief of consequence; or his disgrace if he were obdurate."
It was not till 1894 that Pondoland, in the northern part of the Transkei, came under the Cape administration. But after the Union of South Africa came into being in 1910, the Xhosas faced growing controls by white magistrates. The whites, as Mandela came to see it, captured the institution of the chieftaincy and "used it to suppress the aspirations of their own tribesmen. So they almost destroyed the chieftaincy."
In the later nineteenth century the Zulus, the other major tribal power to the north, became more famous among whites and foreigners as ruthless fighters than the Xhosas, particularly the Zulu warrior-king Shaka, who had set out to conquer and unify all the southern tribes in the 1820s. The Zulus attracted the admiration of many British churchmen, including the dissident Bishop John William Colenso of Natal; but they acquired unique military fame in January 1879, when the British provoked a war with Shaka's successor, Cetewayo, whose army completely destroyed a British force of 1,200 at the battle of Isandhlwana. When the British sent out reinforcements they included the Prince Imperial, son of Louis Napoleon, who was ambushed and speared to death by Zulu assegais. ("A very remarkable people the Zulus," said Disraeli. "They defeat our generals, they convert our bishops, they have settled the fate of a great European dynasty.") The humiliation of Isandhlwana was finally avenged in July, when the British crushed Cetewayo at the battle of Ulundi and subjugated the Zulus; but their reputation for fighting spirit remained.
The Xhosa chiefs appeared less martial and intransigent than the Zulus, and after the Xhosa wars they seemed defeated and demoralized--sometimes with the help of alcohol. But out of the desolation of the Xhosa wars another tradition was growing up, that of mission schools and Christian culture, which gradually produced a new Xhosa elite of disciplined, well-educated young men and women. While embracing Western ideas, they still aspired to restore the rights and dignity of their own people. The British liberal tradition was reasserting itself in the Cape, with the expansion of the mission stations and the introduction of a qualified vote for blacks. Educated young Xhosas were exploiting the aptitude for legal argument, analysis and debate which early white visitors had observed. It was a route that would in time lead some of them into the political campaigns of the black opposition in the 1960s--sometimes called the tenth Xhosa war--and, like their predecessors, to Robben Island; but they would win their battle, and not through military might, but through their skills in argument and reasoning.
Like other conquered peoples such as the Scots or the American Indians, the Xhosas retained their own version of history, which, being largely oral, was easily ignored by the outside world. "The European insisted that we accept his version of the past," said Z. K. Matthews, the African professor who would teach Mandela. But "it was utterly impossible to accept his judgements on the actions and behaviour of Africans, of our own grandfathers in our own lands." Mandela, despite all his Western education, would always champion oral historians, and would continue to be inspired by the spoken stories of the Xhosas which he had heard from his elders: "I knew that our society had produced black heroes and this filled me with pride: I did not know how to channel it, but I carried this raw material with me when I went to college." While most white historians regarded the Xhosa rebellions as firmly placed in the past, overlaid by the relentless logic of Western conquest and technology, Mandela, like other educated Xhosas, saw the white occupation as a recent interlude, and would never forget that his great-grandfather ruled a whole region a century before he was born.
Meet the Author
Anthony Sampson is a distinguished British journalist, the author of nearly twenty books, including Anatomy of Britain, The Seven Sisters, and Company Man. His connection with South Africa dates back to the 1950s, when he was editor of the black magazine Drum in Johannesburg and first met Nelson Mandela. He has visited and reported from the country many times since.
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