Looking for the real Mandela

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 January, 1998, 12:00am

Nelson Mandela: a biography by Martin Meredith, Hamish Hamilton, $220 Nelson Mandela is admired by international heavyweights, pop stars and common people alike as a man with stature and principles in a world where such qualities are rare among leaders, and for his lack of bitterness after so many years as a political prisoner.

But Mr Mandela is no living saint, and while widely respected, his errors of judgment are visible. Recently he was criticised for allowing himself to be photographed with Michael Jackson and with the Spice Girls - acts akin to endorsing commercial products, not something expected of a statesperson.

There have been more serious gaffes. Martin Meredith writes in this new biography that the African National Congress (ANC) recognised Mr Mandela as its 'greatest asset, its elder statesman, able to achieve for the ANC a degree of international respectability and support that would otherwise be missing . . . [but] his pronouncements, notably on foreign affairs, sometimes left ANC officials aghast'.

For example, Mr Mandela praised Fidel Castro and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi to the Americans who consider them their top bogeys.

Little is known of Mr Mandela's inner thoughts, and Meredith barely gets behind the mask. Even those who knew him for many years - political associates, and those who shared his prison years on Robben Island - regard him as aloof, inscrutable and autocratic, an intensely private man. Coupled with his years underground and in jail where few came into contact with him, this makes the biographer's task difficult.

Meredith spends more pages on politics than on understanding Mr Mandela. His account of Mr Mandela's childhood, being brought up by a tribal king, is inadequate and draws heavily on Mr Mandela's autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, still a best-seller after three years and now being abridged for use in schools.

Winnie Mandela looms almost as large as her husband, simply because it is easier to collect material on her. Yet, it is through Mr Mandela's handling of his wayward wife that we get some idea of his inner workings, particularly in later life.

In his youth, Mr Mandela is portrayed as impetuous and cocksure, a womaniser who brings a mistress to live under the same roof as himself and his first wife Evelyn, whom he eventually divorced. He comes across as blessed with luck, but ungrateful and even disloyal. At the age of nine, he was taken under the protection of Thembu chief Jonginthaba Dalindyebo, brought up in his palace and educated in mission schools.

But he bit the hand that fed him by running away to Johannesburg, after tricking a farmer into selling a pair of Chief Jonginthaba's prize oxen and using the money to fund the trip. The chief's attempts to persuade him to return and complete his education were unsuccessful.

Mr Mandela was lucky in Johannesburg: because of his connection with the Thembu chief, he obtained a training position in a law firm and soon began to impress his colleagues with his performance in court.

He also came into contact with a large number of anti-apartheid activists and the ANC.

Nonetheless, Meredith says, politically he was more of a 'gadfly' than a serious activist. Even when forced underground, his behaviour was 'amateurish'.

'Mandela had been carried away by romantic notions of his role as 'commander-in-chief', the showman of the courts now wanting to become the showman of the battlefield wearing army fatigues and khaki,' Meredith says.

But Mr Mandela was never intended to be a front-line ANC warrior. His strength, just developing, was in his intellect. His ability to talk articulately and at length on political matters meant there was little time or need to discuss personal issues with friends.

He once said his 27 years in prison had 'matured' him and given him time to hone his political ideas. But it also gave him stoicism and the ability to hide his true feelings.

'He became adept at concealing his emotions behind a mask, rarely letting any sign of anger or bitterness emerge and never betraying doubt or despair before others. He built around himself a wall of self-discipline, steeling himself to face whatever ordeal prison might hold. He came to distrust emotion, prizing reason and logic above all else, recognising that bitterness would bring him no closer to his goal,' Meredith writes.

Indeed, the author says Mr Mandela was more at ease exchanging pleasantries with strangers and acquaintances than closer friends.

The African leader's handling of Winnie Mandela tells us more about the private Mandela. He adored his wife, whom he refused to condemn despite the mounting evidence of violence and criminal involvement and whom he had to divorce very publicly and painfully.

Mrs Mandela, suffering at the hands of police and banished to the black homelands where she was barely able to function, became involved with disaffected black youths who represented the thousands similarly denied all chance of a proper education or future under apartheid. While Mr Mandela was in prison, she did not hesitate to cash in on the Mandela name and became involved with unsavoury characters; even from prison Mr Mandela had to warn her about her judgment in choosing her friends.

She took several lovers, one of whom was still living with her when Mr Mandela was released on that momentous day in 1990.

Mr Mandela, who seems to have loved her all those years, found it hard to believe she did not share his feelings.

He continued to support her political ambitions (appointing her Minister of Arts in his government) against great opposition within the ANC.

Put simply, he believed she had suffered greatly on his account and felt her loyalty should be rewarded.

For years Mr Mandela refused to entertain criticism of his wife, and Meredith says Winnie Mandela 'was to exploit to the full' his sense of guilt for her own benefit.

Mr Mandela did not believe her role in the killing of 'Stompie' Moeketsi Seipei. Like many others, he believed the Stompie affair to be an attempt by the security forces to discredit Mrs Mandela and the ANC.

His associates noted that Winnie Mandela was his one blind spot. Perhaps he did recognise her failings.

'I am the only person who can control this woman,' he once said with his arm around Winnie. But he believed he could win her over. That he was unable to, he sees as his biggest failure.

During their divorce proceedings (which Mrs Mandela resisted), Mr Mandela told the court: 'Ever since I came back from jail, not once has the defendant [Winnie] entered the bedroom while I was awake . . . I was the loneliest man during the period I stayed with her.' Although Mr Mandela was later to find happiness with Graca Machel, the widow of the president of Mozambique, Meredith's account leaves the reader with an indelible picture of a lonely man who has had little semblance of family life throughout his life.