Nelson Mandela

Fatima Meer, Mandela Nelson, Anthony Sampson, Elleke Boehmer, Jonny Steinberg

Nelson Mandela when he died in 2013, at age 95, was universally acclaimed as a political saint.

The facts known to laymen were that this is a man incarcerated for 27 years by the South African government, upon release he led a peaceful transition to a government when he became its first black President.

He didn’t seek revenge against his ex-opponents or their henchmen who had killed or tortured his ANC members and supporters.

In short, he did no wrong.

In this new explosive biography by Jonny Steinberg (2023 published), the myth is blown apart.

Mandela is human after all. With warts and all. He had affairs, he was jailed for acts of violence. He was not a prisoner of conscience. He may have been denied a fair trial. But he was leading an armed insurrection against the state.

The strength of Steinberg’s book is that he focuses on the new facts he had uncovered.

Well-known facts are skirted over. Minutiae is scrupulously avoided. Thus, the lay reader is able to see the forest for the trees.

I would however observe the comment made by Steinberg (in an appendix at p 478) that Mandela after his release chose to conceal his bitterness and anger because he felt this was necessary to lead South Africa to a better future is not supported by any data or narrative in the main text.

Wouldn’t 27 years in jail change a violent man?

With this new book, one has to read the earlier biographies with some caution. These are Higher Than Hope (1988), Long Walk to Freedom (1994), Mandela by Sampson (1999) still the most substantial biography, and Nelson Mandela A very short introduction by Boehmer (2008).

If you can’t read all, you may skip Boehmer’s.

There are excellent reviews of the new biography in the Washington Times and FT.

My only quibble with the FT’s review dated 20 May 2023 by Alec Russell is that he ended his well-written review with the line” And yet at the very end it transpires it was Winnie who Nelson wanted at his side on his deathbed. ”

I am not sure the reason for the preference for Winnie his 2nd wife and the unintended slight at Graca Machel, Mandela’s 3rd, and last wife, is justified.

Mandela was suffering from dementia at that time (page 475 Steinberg paperback).

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