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A Leader Called by History

BOOKS OF THE TIMES; How a Leader Emerged As if Called by History

Date: November 30, 1994, Wednesday, Late Edition - Final

LONG WALK TO FREEDOM By Nelson Mandela 558 pages. Little, Brown. $24.95.

Nelson Mandela has already made history: now he has chosen to write it in the form of an autobiography.

"I am not and never have been a man who finds it easy to talk about his feelings in public," he acknowledges in "Long Walk to Freedom." When reporters asked how it felt to be free, he writes, "I did my best to describe the indescribable, and usually failed." His book is formal in tone: courtly, stern, ironic and, in its detailed accounts of political meetings and strategies, didactic. It is also fascinating because, like the hero in a Shakespearean history play, Mr. Mandela cannot help revealing himself: here are all the idiosyncracies and complications that turned a man into a leader and that have at last turned that leader back into a man.

South Africa, where worlds and races collide, supplies the plot. Mr. Mandela's youth was the stuff of pastoral legend. He was born in 1918, into the royal household of the Thembu tribe. His father served as a kind of prime minister to the Thembu monarchs and, he writes, "I was groomed, like my father before me, to counsel the rulers of the tribe."

Then there was a sudden clash with Western realpolitik. Refusing an order to appear before a local white magistrate, his father was stripped of his title, his land, his herd and revenue. Nelson found himself living in straitened circumstances in a small village, but privilege reasserted itself when his father died and he was placed in the household of the Thembu ruler. He was sent to boarding school and to the only college for blacks in South Africa. He studied English, anthropology, "native administration" and Roman Dutch law. He practiced ballroom dancing for hours, played John Wilkes Booth in a school drama about Lincoln, and helped organize a freshmen revolt against the power wielded by upperclassmen. He was a privileged young man with a few rough country edges who was being groomed for success in the world of his fellow Africans.

Then, to escape an arranged marriage, he rebelled against his family and ran away to Johannesburg. (He has the grace to note that his intended bride was in love with someone else, thus "undoubtedly no more eager to be burdened with me than I was with her.") Johannesburg was part big city and part frontier town when he got there in 1941 and began studying law at one of the few firms willing to hire a black as a clerk. He also began meeting the men and women who would make up the core of the African National Congress and its Indian, mixed-race and white allies.

He writes: "Change was in the air in the 1940's. . . . Inspired by the Atlantic Charter and the fight of the Allies against tyranny and oppression, the A.N.C. created its own charter, called African Claims, which called for full citizenship for all Africans, the right to buy land, and the repeal of all discriminatory legislation." Black miners struck for a minimum wage. Indians mounted a campaign against restrictions on their right to trade or buy property. And the National Party instituted apartheid (Afrikaans for "apartness"), that lethal system of laws and customs meant to insure, as the Nationalists put it, that "the white man must always remain boss."

As apartheid grew stronger, so did the means of opposing it: strikes, boycotts, passive resistance campaigns and, eventually, the sabotage of government property. Mr. Mandela started out as a lawyer, but he became a political organizer and a military strategist whose models included Boer generals, Cuban Communists, Menachem Begin and Clausewitz. Arrested and charged with treason in 1962, he was 44 when he entered prison and 71 when he was released. More than half the book is about those 27 intervening years: the shock of solitary confinement (he found himself "on the verge of initiating conversations with a cockroach"); the hunger strikes and hard labor at the lime quarry; the cultivation of good relations with this or that guard; the escape plan that turned out to be a setup; the messages smuggled to other political prisoners. ("One way was to write messages with milk. The milk would dry almost immediately, and the paper would look blank. But the disinfectant we were given to clean our cells, when sprayed on the dried milk, made the writing reappear.")

Then, in 1985, came the first talks with National Party officials. The suspense mounts almost unbearably as Mr. Mandela describes how a prisoner and his captors exchange notes, meet, shake hands, make small talk and take each other's measure for what could be a bloody life-and-death struggle.

His account of the meetings with President F. W. de Klerk and the fierce negotiations that led to the first election in which all South Africans were allowed to vote is marked by a curious and compelling mixture of tension and restraint. But finally, what moves one most is the Nelson Mandela we might never have seen if history had taken another course. The young boy who spent hours pressing the suits of the Thembu monarch, getting the crease in the trousers just right. The prisoner who wrote his wife that he dusted her picture each day: "I even touch your nose with mine to recapture the electric current that used to flush through my blood whenever I did so." The impeccable politician who, having been introduced to the children of a prison guard he liked, sent them Christmas cards every year from then on. The debater who saves the best retorts for himself, as when he tells National Party officials who insist he is a dupe of the Communists: "You gentlemen consider yourselves intelligent, do you not? You consider yourselves forceful and persuasive, do you not? Well, there are four of you and only one of me, and you cannot control me or get me to change my mind. What makes you think the Communists can succeed where you have failed?"

He says that "in attempting to serve my people, I was prevented from fulfilling my obligations as a son, a brother, a father and a husband." A child asks her father: " 'Why can you not be with us?' And the father must utter the terrible words: 'There are other children like you, a great many of them . . . ' and then one's voice trails off." He did, however, become one of the founding fathers of a new South Africa. And from the evidence of this book, he is an uncanny combination of rebel, gentleman and patriot.

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