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The Practical Mr. Mandela

The Practical Mr. Mandela

Date: December 18, 1994, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
Byline: By Bill Keller;

LONG WALK TO FREEDOM The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. By Nelson Mandela. Illustrated. 558 pp. Boston: Little, Brown & Company. $24.95.

ON my office bulletin board is a headline clipped from a Johannesburg tabloid last June, a month after Nelson Mandela's inauguration as the first freely elected President of South Africa. In huge, bold type, it says, "MANDELA: I'M NOT 'MESSIAH.' "

Nelson Mandela comes swaddled in myth, and he knows it. To many of his countrymen and to much of the world he is, in fact, the savior of South Africa. He triumphed over the last white minority regime on the continent and then, in a feat many outsiders find even more miraculous, he triumphed over the spite to which a man might feel entitled if he has spent 27 years locked in a cell for the crime of presuming to be a citizen in his native land. As Mr. Mandela is clearly aware, the problem with such mythology, even when it contains a large measure of truth, is that it invites impossible expectations. It also tends to make for dull reading.

Fortunately for readers, not to mention for South Africa, the Nelson Mandela who emerges from his memoir, "Long Walk to Freedom," is considerably more human than the icon of legend. He is a naive and headstrong youth, a neglectful husband, a distracted father. He misleads his allies and manipulates his followers. He is uncritical of despots who support his liberation struggle. Time after time, he chooses tactics over principles. Mr. Mandela is, on the evidence of his amazing life, neither a messiah nor a moralist nor really a revolutionary, but a pragmatist to the core, a shrewd balancer of honor and interests. He is, to use a word unhappily fallen into disrepute, a politician, though one distinguished from lesser practitioners of his calling mainly by his unwavering faith in his ultimate objective, ending white minority rule.

Mr. Mandela was born in 1918 into the royal family of the Thembu tribe of the Xhosa people, and raised to be a counselor to the paramount chief. Tribal identity is not something younger members of the African National Congress dwell on these days. Apartheid discredited the very idea of ethnicity by carrying it to cruel extremes. But Mr. Mandela appreciates the potent role tribal attachments still play in South Africa, and he writes with affection and pride of village life and of his own upbringing in the Thembu court. The village experience seems to have implanted in him a formal dignity, a judicial temperament, a regal self-confidence and at least one early lesson in leadership. Eavesdropping on the patient, consensus-seeking debate of the tribal council, he noticed that the chief worked the way a shepherd does: "He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind." It sounds uncannily like Mr. Mandela's technique in the executive council of the African National Congress, and now in the Cabinet.

AT the English missionary boarding school where he was groomed to join the African elite, the young Mandela studied liberal values that he took more to heart than his teachers intended. His first political collision came when he supported a student protest at the University College of Fort Hare, refusing to yield on a minor point of principle and returning home under threat of expulsion. Looking back, he calls his high-minded intransigence "foolhardy."

Fleeing the prospect of an arranged marriage, he stole some royal oxen to sell for traveling money, and through a series of elaborate deceits he made his way to the urban caldron around Johannesburg. He studied law and became swept up in liberation politics. By now he had moved beyond his Thembu heritage to become an ardent black nationalist. He joined militant friends in breaking up Communist Party meetings because he considered Communism a foreign, white ideology.

"I was angry at the white man, not at racism," he recalls. "While I was not prepared to hurl the white man into the sea, I would have been perfectly happy if he climbed aboard his steamships and left the continent of his own volition."

He soon settled into a partnership of convenience with the Communists, which he likens to the West's alliance with Stalin against the Nazis. "The cynical have always suggested that the Communists were using us," he adds. "But who is to say that we were not using them?"

In the most dramatic of many tacks, Mr. Mandela, in 1953, was among the first African National Congress leaders to argue for a shift from peaceful civil disobedience to armed insurrection. Even after his colleagues rejected violence as premature, he arranged an unauthorized mission to China to request weapons for the cause. The A.N.C. leadership finally endorsed armed struggle in 1961, just a few weeks after Mr. Mandela and his compatriots, in the course of winning acquittal on charges of treason, had insisted that nonviolence was an inalterable principle of the organization. "For me," he writes, "nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon."

After botching the treason prosecution, the state succeeded in convicting Mr. Mandela and his comrades of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the Government. The courtroom drama is gripping, not because the outcome was in doubt (the only serious question this time was whether the defendants would be sentenced to death or to life imprisonment) but because Mr. Mandela rose so unforgettably to his assignment as the spokesman for his people.

For about 200 pages, the book then becomes a prison memoir. Mr. Mandela vividly recounts a life of excruciating drudgery, intense loneliness and petty humiliation that began on the ferry ride to Robben Island, the South African Alcatraz, with guards urinating down on their prisoners through the air vents. Each day the inmates were marched to a limestone quarry where they labored in the dust and glare. Letters and visits were scarce and supervised with cruel obtrusiveness, or capriciously denied. For 21 years, Mr. Mandela did not so much as touch his wife's hand. Most painful, Mr. Mandela recalls, was the impotence of knowing wives and children were also being harassed, expelled from jobs and schools, exiled or imprisoned.

The account is distinguished from others in the gulag genre by several features. One is the extent to which prison was a microcosm of the apartheid world. Blacks wore short pants and got stingier food rations than mixed-race or Indian prisoners. (Whites, of course, were in an altogether different prison.) Another distinction was that the political inmates, by subterfuge and manipulation, managed to turn the prisons into universities of the struggle, in which long hours were devoted to debates on everything from Marxism to circumcision to the moral stature of the Hell's Angels. At Robben Island, Mr. Mandela even managed to write a secret autobiography that forms the kernel of this book.

From prison, Mr. Mandela initiated negotiations with the apartheid Government, without first consulting or even informing his A.N.C. colleagues because he knew they would not approve. Once the Government and Mr. Mandela decided they could do business with each other, he was moved to a warden's cottage with a swimming pool, garden, personal chef, VCR and tailor-made suit for meetings with Government luminaries. The book is rich in the details of this secret diplomacy.

Mr. Mandela ascribes his famous lack of bitterness to his experiences in prison: the kindnesses and even open-mindedness of some white jailers and the respect and honesty he finds among his white negotiating partners. He does not like them all (F. W. de Klerk, the President who presided over the end of white rule, and with whom Mr. Mandela shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, is portrayed as a pragmatic but ultimately untrustworthy man). But Mr. Mandela has a remarkable ability to empathize with his enemies, who, like him, are driven more by practical considerations than by ideology.

In fact, his fiercest contempt is not for his white oppressors but for a rival liberation group, the Pan Africanist Congress, which competes for foreign sympathizers by presenting itself as the more authentic champion of the African cause. Mr. Mandela portrays the Pan Africanists as consumed by petty ambitions and blinded by doctrine.

Mr. Mandela has been well served by his collaborator, Richard Stengel, a contributor to Time magazine, who preserved the unmistakable voice of Mr. Mandela -- polite, good-humored -- while curbing his tendency to speak in the collective voice of the movement and to name every person who attended every meeting. The narrative is enlivened by intimate detail and introspection that must have been coaxed from Mr. Mandela, since he is usually loath to speak of such things in public.

We get endearing anecdotes, such as his attempt to teach his strong-willed bride, Winnie, to drive a car, and we get more searing memories -- his paralyzing pain upon the death of a son in a car accident, and his constant remorse at neglecting his family for the cause. ("Where does Daddy live?" one of his children asks when Mr. Mandela disappears for another organizing trip.)

THE candor is less than complete. Mr. Mandela, for example, defends the A.N.C.'s decision to take up arms, but glosses over the fact that what began as sabotage against electrical stations became for a time a campaign of terrorism against civilians. He deals only in passing with the tragic decline of his wife, Winnie, who was convicted of kidnapping after she sent her bodyguards to seize and beat four young men, one of whom was found with his throat cut. Mr. Mandela, full of self-blame for his estranged wife's suffering, insists without much conviction that he believes her innocent.

The rich narrative deteriorates in the last 50 pages into a news anthology of the years after his release in 1990. The township massacres, the negotiations, the Nobel Peace Prize, the agreement on a five-year "Government of national unity," the election campaign and the elections themselves all whiz by in a blur of platitudes. Perhaps Mr. Mandela, the politician, was reluctant to say anything that might offend the former rivals who have become his partners in what is supposed to be a Government by consensus. Mandela on Tactics

In order for a hunger strike to succeed, the outside world must learn of it. Otherwise, prisoners will simply starve themselves to death, and no one will know. Smuggled-out information that we were on a hunger strike would elicit newspaper stories, which in turn would generate pressure from advocacy groups. The problem, particularly in the early years, was that it was next to impossible to alert people on the outside that we were waging a hunger strike inside.

For me, hunger strikes were altogether too passive. We who were already suffering were threatening our health, even courting death. I have always favored a more active, militant style of protest, such as work strikes, go-slow strikes, or refusing to clean up; actions that punished the authorities, not ourselves. They wanted gravel, and we produced no gravel. They wanted the prison yard clean, and it was untidy. This kind of behavior distressed and exasperated them, whereas I think they secretly enjoyed watching us go hungry.

But when it came to a decision, I was often outvoted. My colleagues even jokingly accused me of not wanting to miss a meal. The proponents of hunger strikes argued that it was a traditionally accepted form of protest that had been waged all over the world by such prominent leaders as Mahatma Gandhi. Once the decision was taken, however, I would support it as wholeheartedly as any of its advocates. In fact, during the strikes I was often in the position of remonstrating with some of my more wayward colleagues. . . .

Comrades would sometimes eat on the sly. We knew this for a simple reason: by the second day of a hunger strike, no one needs to use the toilet. Yet one morning you might see a fellow going to the toilet. We had our own internal intelligence service because we knew that certain men were weak in this regard. From "Long Walk to Freedom."

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