A biography shepherded by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and written by an English journalist attains distance from and clarity on the life of the near-sainted South African leader.
Sunday Times Magazine contributor Smith (One Morning in Sarajevo: 28 June 1914, 2008, etc.) works back in time from the arrest of Mandela on Aug. 5, 1962, for inciting a strike and leaving the country without a passport. With the busting of the underground headquarters of the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) the next year, his papers were discovered, implicating him in revolution and sabotage against the apartheid state, which secured his imprisonment on Robben Island for the next 26 years. In this readable, well-calibrated account of Mandela’s early life, Smith attempts to get at the making of the revolutionary and leader, from an impoverished young law student to his rise through the ANC ranks, military training and authoring of “How to Be a Good Communist.” The son of a Thembu chief who defied the white magistrate, Mandela was the first of his father’s four wives’ families to be educated. At Fort Hare University, he met his future law partner and ANC colleague, Oliver Tambo. Mandela was already proving to be a student leader and oppositional figure, and he escaped an arranged tribal marriage and met Walter Sisulu, an ANC leader, helped him find a clerkship while attending law school in Johannesburg. Mentored by Sisulu, Mandela was duly enlightened to the appalling conditions imposed on black Africans by the fiercely racist apartheid structure. Tall and handsome, Mandela was also a ladies’ man, marrying Evelyn Mase in 1944 (they had several children), before divorcing her for the much younger social worker Winnie Madikizela, in 1958. Increasing leadership in the ANC involved long absences and strains on the marriage, while Mandela was embroiled in the Treason Trial of the mid-’50s, endured a five-year ban on public speaking and schisms within the ANC and advocated armed struggle by 1961.
Smith vivifies the personalities and marshals the revolutionary events without overwhelming the reader.