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A decidedly sympathetic history of the life of the imprisoned black South African by a white exile from that troubled land. At the book's beginning, Benson asks, ""How is it that a man imprisoned for more than twenty-three years--who has not been allowed to be quoted by the South African media--has become the vital symbol of a new society?"" By book's end, the question remains only partially addressed. The problem is that Benson is unable to give us a rounded, flesh-and-blood portrait of Mandela. At one point she describes him as ""a born mass leader who could not help magnetizing people""; and she makes several references to his ""humor and warmth."" But he is so sketchily limned that we never get to know him. We follow him from his birth in 1918 in a rural kraal in the lush Transkai through his expulsion from college (for joining a student boycott), to his precipitous flight to Johannesburg after his adoptive father, a tribal chief, ordered him to marry an unattractive local maiden. He completed his studies, obtained a law degree, and set up practice in Johannesburg. There, too, he joined the African National Congress, rising through its ranks to become deputy to Chief Albert Lutili (later a Nobel Peace Prize winner). For every peaceful protest against apartheid staged by the ANC, the government imposed additional restrictions on blacks. Mandela was repeatedly banned (denied a travel pass) and occasionally detained for minor infractions of the law. During one of his trials, he married Winnie Madikizela (an earlier marriage had ended in divorce). After the ANC was outlawed, Mandela lost faith in the efficacy of nonviolence. In defiance of the authorities, he went underground and organized the Umkonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Law), which arranged for training of guerrillas in Ethiopia and detonated bombs at ""symbolic targets"" in Johannesburg. He was taken prisoner in August, 1962, and, while serving a five-year sentence, was tried for treason after the police obtained evidence of his terrorist activities. He is now serving a life sentence at hard labor, while the indominatable Winnie keeps his legend burnished in an ever-more-violent South Africa. In sum: long on details, short on interpretation.

Pub Date: March 17th, 1986
Publisher: Norton