A lot of people have been asking me about my thoughts about Nelson Mandela and even though this is a blog about squash, it is perhaps the only venue where I can easily send out a response.

Here is a link to a piece I wrote three years ago for the Daily Beast website on Mandela:

Below is a piece I wrote that came out in the fall of 1999 in the Boston Book Review.


Mandela: The Authorized Biography

Anthony Sampson


720 pp. $30

The moment of his release in February 1990 after ten thousand days in jail was for many people the singular event that closed the Cold War era. It had that where-were-you-when-J.F.K.-was-shot immediacy. It was unalloyed, cathartic joy and a fist in the Cape summer air and a niggling doubt that no man, surely, could live up to such mythic expectations.

That Nelson Mandela—cowherd, university drop-out, nightwatchman at Johannesburg’s gold mines, lawyer, boxer, rabble-rousing dissident, hapless guerrilla commander, and the world’s most famous political prisoner—could usher in democracy and still retain and even buff and polish his image as a secular saint is a story rich with possibilities.

Anthony Sampson is equal to the task. There was a fair amount of excitement among historians of South Africa when the news leaked four years ago that Sampson was going to do Mandela’s biography. In 1951 just down from Oxford he was asked to edit a fledgling Johannesburg monthly magazine directed towards Africans called Drum. By the time he left three and a half years later Drum was the best-selling magazine on the continent and had helped spawn the Sophiatown generation of writers. Sampson wrote a delightfully perceptive memoir about Drum (“The story of the newspaper that won the heart of Africa”) and then a contemporary account of the Treason Trial, the interminable 156-person death-penalty case which the apartheid regime used in the late 1950s as a method to stifle rising opposition. Back in London he went on to write eighteen more books, including the popular Anatomy of Britain series and a useful examination of the South African mining industry, and he regularly came back to South Africa to report on events for British newspapers. There was probably no one as well-connected, respected and equipped as Sampson to tackle the life of Mandela.

Given his four decades of experience, there are a surprising number of errors and misjudgments. He gets the names wrong on numerous individuals, from Elijah Makiwane to S.P. Bunting. He sometimes forgets to identify people and places: how many know where Mamelodi is? The Native Representative Council was boycotted by its members after the 1946 mine strike. The absence of some liberation leaders from the Treason Trial was not a mystery, because they had been officially banned from political activity before the time of the indictment period. The Communist Party of South Africa enjoyed its first wave of popularity among Africans in the late 1920s, not during the Second World War, and was founded in 1921 not 1920.

His prose, overloaded with clauses that dangle like weeds off a wheelbarrow, is sometimes regrettable: “He visited his mother’s grave, still remorseful that he had not properly cared for her, and was welcomed to a banquet, for which a nephew had slaughtered a precious ox, by local chiefs and Mandela relations, including his sister Mabel.”

But most disappointing is Sampson’s reluctance to draw upon any personal memories beyond the briefest, one-sentence use of the first person. He inserts, often in a footnote, the mere, tantalizingly brief fact that he had personally witnessed the event at hand. One wants more on the Falstaffian printer who ran an illegal shebeen on Commissioner Street or about the evening Sampson spent editing, with Mandela’s lawyers, the legendary 1964  Rivonia trial statement from the dock which was Mandela’s last public speech until that February day in 1990.

There have been three previous biographies of Mandela. Two, by Mary Benson and Fatima Meer, were hagiographies written while he was in jail; Meer’s, also “authorized,” was blessed with a foreword by Winnie Mandela. The third, by Oxford don Martin Meredith, appeared eighteen months ago. (Mandela’s acclaimed autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, ghosted by New Yorker writer Richard Stengal, came out in 1995.) Sampson’s is clearly much more definitive than the rest. He has over twenty-four hundred endnotes and a bibliography which is longer than Meredith’s notably thin endnotes pages.

The depth is accentuated by Sampson’s herculean research. With the power of authorization behind him, he interviewed everyone and picked through prison diaries and unpublished letters and had the exceptionally rare pleasure of access to Pretoria’s prison and justice ministry’s files. Mandela even proofread a draft. Sampson drops more than one historical bombshell. The most intriguing is the fact that Harry Oppenheimer, the head of Anglo-American which controlled the diamond kings De Beers and much of the South African economy, secretly donated £40,000 to the Treason Trial Defense Fund. Just once does he fumble with his massive archival load: he quotes a letter from Mandela describing in fierce detail his 1985 prostate operation, which easily and queasily competes for the grand prize in the category of More-Than-I-Need-To-Know.

What made Mandela the greatest of twentieth-century liberators? Sampson posits two sources. Although he only spends twenty-four pages on it, Sampson makes a solid case for the importance of Mandela’s rural roots. A log-cabin Lincoln, Rolihlahla Mandela spent his first nine years in an isolated, hill-side Transkei village, without electricity or running water or sleeping pillows, the son of an illiterate, polygamous farmer. (His mother was the third wife of four.) But, as the great grand-son of a Xhosa king, Mandela was born into a regal lineage. At age ten he moved in with the ruling chief of a Xhosa tribe, and Sampson argues that at the royal palace Mandela learned how to dispense justice and mediate conflicts and, most importantly, how to forgive.

Educated at mission schools, Mandela aspired to be a court interpreter. But he was expelled from university over a conflict about bad cafeteria food and had to flee from an arranged marriage. In 1941, at age twenty-two, he arrived in Johannesburg and found work first at a gold mine and then at a law firm. Even in the tumultuous Fifties when he emerged as a political force, he was not the obvious leader of the African National Congress. There were at least a dozen other people who shone brighter than Xhosa prince and who, had bets been laid, would have had better odds at moving into Groote Schuur. Mandela was head-strong, for a while a vitriolic anti-communist adept at breaking up meetings, not terribly intellectual—he spent six years unsuccessfully studying for his law degree—and he had a Jehovah’s Witness wife who disapproved of politics. He was also, like many Congress leaders, a clothes horse. “Some Indians said he was like Gandhi,” said Fatima Meer. “I told them, ‘Gandhi took off his clothes. Nelson loves his clothes.” Sampson himself ignored Mandela when he profiled ANC leaders in his Treason Trial book.

Robben Island is what molded Mandela. Sampson correctly gives over more than a third of the biography to the Island years. He sensitively limns the fatherly role of long-time colleague Walter Sisulu and the leadership coup attempt by Harry Gwala after the 1976 Soweto uprising. He notes the hints of trouble in his second marriage to Winnie Mandela and illustrates the humdrum prison life with the fact that Mandela once read War and Peace in three days.

Marooned on an Alcatraz-like island off the coast of Cape Town with hundreds of political prisoners, some from rival black parties, Mandela learned how to rule. “His prison ordeal transformed him into a much more reflective and influential kind of leader,” writes Sampson. “He was cut off from mass audiences, public images and television cameras, stripped down to man-to-man leadership and the essentials of human relationships, away from the trappings of power. He learned about human sensitivities and how to handle the fears and insecurities of others, including his Afrikaner warders….The Mandela who emerged from jail surprised most people who had known him before (including myself), not so much by his political shrewdness as by his humanity and simplicity. He had lost his defensiveness and arrogance as he became more confident of his powers.”

He went in an ordinary man and came out a hero, proof that in even in our cynical, specialized age, the Great Man theory of history still holds water. With his rural roots and his twenty-seven years on Robben Island, this one man solved one of the most intractable problems of our century. Forget de Klerk, forget sanctions, forget the armed struggle. Nelson Mandela made the miracle.

It is understandable, then, to learn what he has done since abdicating his presidency in June. The eighty-year-old man, combining the two things that made him, has retired to his childhood Transkei village and moved into a new, red-brick bungalow, the design of which is an exact model of the cells where he spent the last years of his imprisonment.