Nine powerful stars
As I continue the forty days of biography reading, I thought I ought to tackle some of the ‘big players’ in the world of politics. At a time when the world is still ill-balanced, I wanted to delve into the world of Nelson Mandela, one who sought to recalibrate a significant unbalance on the African continent over a number of decades. Having a great interest in South Africa, the backwardness of apartheid’s acceptance by any governing body, and how the world handled the bloodshed under the racist regime there, I felt this would be a wonderful starting point. I have read much historical fiction about the country and the struggles, but it is high time we look to facts and figures. There will be those who oppose me reading this autobiography for propaganda reasons (and they have already reared their heads) and I welcome their sentiments, though the sub-set who are supremacists and bully views for the sake of racism belong in the weed-choked fields of knowledge from whence they came. And yes, they have come out to write to me as well!
Born in 1918 with the birth name ‘Rolihlahla’, Xhosa for “pulling the branch of a tree’, Mandela lived his early years in a small village far from the bustling cities of Cape Town or Johannesburg. Living in the traditional way of Africans, the village shared resources and means of survival, which might have fostered his views that found him in hot water decades later. Seeing much potential in their son, Mandela’s parents allowed the Church to play a strong role in his upbringing and education, which led him to find a passion for the law. Mandela explains early on in this autobiography that his desire to advocate for others became a foundation of the way he lived his life. Eventually pulled into the larger city, Mandela worked in a law firm in Johannesburg, though failed to pass some of the essential academic examinations to earn an LLB. However, Mandela found a strong desire to help his fellow African with issues that arose and worked within the limits before him to ensure that all South Africans shared the same opportunities. South Africa was in the midst of a transformation, still part of the British Commonwealth but run primarily by the Afrikaner white minority, who ruled in an off-balance manner that sought to use the minority sentiments to shape the laws for all. With the exclusion of the black African (please allow me at this time to offer apologies for anyone who takes offence to the word ‘black’, for I am simply using the term Mandela presented throughout, which differentiates between the white minority and the unrepresented majority) population, Mandela began to meet with other like-minded men and sought to join the political movement of the African National Congress (ANC), whose long-standing support of black equality fit nicely with the views he espoused. Mandela used this passion to fuel his mantra as he sought to push back against the views of the South African Government. Mandela did find time to marry, choosing Evelyn Nkoto Mase, who bore him his first set of children. Mandela explores the life of an anti-colonist and the role the ANC played in his early life. By this time, the South African government brought in apartheid, an approach to racial divide the country and benefit the whites. Mandela would not stand for this and spoke out whenever he could to counter the racist governmental policies. The strains between Mandela and Evelyn led to a disintegration of that marriage and Mandela was forced to come to terms with it while he wrestled for black equality. Not long single, Mandela met and married Winnie Madikizela, sure they would be together after their first date. Things ramped up and Mandela was soon persona non grata in the country, hiding from the authorities in order to protect himself. Mandela tells of his secret trips to other parts of Africa to meet with other black leaders who were also trying to toss the shackles of oppression from their peoples. And yet, the world stood by and watched as the politics of South Africa became more troublesome. The ANC ramped up its views and Mandela became a strong figurehead, eventually brought to trial for High Treason after espousing views of wanting to overthrow the government. Mandela makes clear that there was no way to follow a peaceful solution against the Government, though he may have wanted to parallel Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. However, targeted violence would not include the regular citizen and assassination was never promoted or condoned. Sentenced to life in prison after the judge chose not to impose the death penalty, Mandela began his twenty-seven years behind bars on Robben Island, an isolated prison facility.
A resident of the Robben Island prison Mandela speaks frankly about his incarceration and the treatment he received. While the meals were poor and the sanitary conditions less than ideal, I expected severe beatings and horrendous treatment at the hands of guards and wardens to pepper the narrative. However, Mandela was seen as an advocate for his fellow prisoners and earned the respect of the white prison hierarchy, to the point that he was given special treatment when presenting concerns to the prison authorities. His imprisonment became a political soapbox and many people from all corners of the world came to see him and listen to his views, though nothing changed. While the outside world continued to speak out against apartheid and issued sanctions, politics within the country sought to strengthen the racially divisive movement under a number of leaders, culminating in P.W. Botha, perhaps its most ruthless Afrikaner leader. However, as Mandela presents in the latter portion of the narrative, Botha readily met with Mandela and heard his complaints. Mandela continued to espouse equality and fought against apartheid, though Botha gave only lip service to these concerns. As the world began to shift toward the end of the 1980s, South Africa’s apartheid views seemed to dissipate when Botha stepped down and F.W. de Klerk became prime minister. Under de Klerk, Mandela’s sentence came to an end and he was able to leave Robben Island, completing the long and sordid walk to freedom.
Mandela is able to use the last dozen or so chapters to speak of this freedom and the changes that came to pass, though there was surely many hurdles to overcome and much reconciliation that needed to take place. Mandela advocated for free and open elections, even while de Klerk sought an outright veto over any legislation for the Afrikaners. Push came to shove and the racial divide led to more murders, increased resentment, and added pressure on Mandela and the ANC to prove that they could act within political means and not turn to guns. Mandela speaks frankly, though never stops pushing for talk over bullet to solve the issue. By the time the first open national election came to pass in 1994, Mandela was able to rise to the role of President of the South African Republic, the ultimate gift after decades of oppression.
Some who saw that I was reading this jumped immediately onto Mandela’s being a communist (as though that were a poisoned moniker) and a terrorist. Both of these sentiments are true in their textbook form, though the flavour in which they were presented makes them seem horrid and worthy of vilification. To those people, who prefer to talk of peaceful whites and raping blacks (I kid you not), I can only offer pity as they allow ignorance to ferment inside their minds. It also shows that they have no interest in engaging in an intellectual conversation on Mandela or the apartheid era in South Africa. Mandela’s upbringing was very much one of social equality for all and his interest in Marxist views fuelled a passion to see equality for every man, woman, and child within South Africa, irregardless of the colour of their skin or background. His terrorist leanings were borne out of a need to bring about needed change. I neither condemn or condone these actions, but I do see some rationale, as Mandela spoke of wanting to emulate Gandhi’s protest in India. However, while the British were a sensible people with a democratic political system that permitted all to vote, South Africa would never allow blacks to have a political voice, thereby keeping them from ever bringing about change in a parliamentary means. Mandela spoke of two Americans coming to see him in prison, pushing the idea of Martin Luther King’s triumphs in America without ever needing to promote violence. Again, Mandela spoke of how the US Constitution entrenched equal rights within the document and King was only trying to promote these sentiments in the racist south. So, while he was a terrorist in the textbook sense, one might wonder if it was for a good cause. Of course, that will not quell the views of those who are cemented into a hatred that could include burning crosses or half-truths, but then again, some people’s ignorance comes from indoctrination and a refusal to expand their knowledge.
Mandela’s crisp delivery is refreshing, especially as he speaks to frankly about these issues. I was drawn into the chapters and found myself begging for more information, even though I was already drowning in all the narrative had to offer. Mandela does not try to make himself look like a martyr or saint, but does not shy away from the evils he felt were developing around him. His love of self, family, and the larger South African state appears throughout. While this was an autobiography, it is balanced and can be called a realistic account, though I would be remiss if I took it as gospel. Mandela pulls no punches, while remaining above the fray and not getting himself stuck in the racial mud slinging that one might expect from someone who was oppressed for so long. He could have penned a powerful piece, highly critical of the government and scathing in its presentation, but by keeping things balanced and free from poisonous rhetoric, the reader is more likely to find pieces they support. The attentive reader will learn how Mandela devised early drafts of this piece and find themselves impressed with his ability to recollect so much. Far from succinct, but laid out perfectly to see the slow development of Mandela’s struggles, the reader will surely appreciate the attention to detail and powerful arguments that pepper this piece from beginning to end.
Kudos seem to be too small an honour to bestow upon you, Mr. Mandela. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece and while others may criticise me for even considering it, I am happy I took the time to learn about these struggles within South Africa.
I would encourage anyone who knows of a good book that tells the opposite side of the argument to send me a recommendation. All I ask is that it is well-sourced and a grounded piece that does not spiral into hate speech. I am eager to see apartheid and the white struggle within South Africa, should it exist.