Friday, 28 June 2013

Flashback Friday - Mandela The Authorised Biography

Flashback Friday hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies is a new meme that encourages us to remember a book we read over 5 years ago that is still in print and that we haven't blogged about previously.

This week the news has been full of Nelson Mandela's failing health.

Mandela has been such an inspirational leader and man that it is difficult not to feel personally involved and deeply affected by his illness.

In 1999 I read Anthony Sampson's Authorised Biography on Mandela. It was incredibly moving and at times, almost unbelievable.

Over the past few days, I've taken to flicking through my copy to touch, once again, some of this humble man's greatness.

Right from the Introduction you know that you're in for something special. Mandela promises Sampson "to discuss critical questions" with him, but also to leave him "free to make (his) own judgements and criticisms."

Sampson's aim was to "show the harsh realities of Mandela's long and adventurous life as they appeared to him and to his friends at the time, stripped of the gloss of mythology and romance; but also to trace how the glittering image of Mandela was magnified while he was in jail, acquiring its own power and influence across the world; and to show how the prisoner was able to relate the image to reality."

I'm too young to know anything of Mandela's early years except via books and articles. But the day after my 22nd birthday Nelson Mandela was released from jail and I wept at the images being beamed around the world. He looked so fragile and overwhelmed by the crowds and the outpouring of support. It was such a moving moment that I determined then and there to know more.

In 1991 I visited Glasgow during my 10 mnth 'gap year'. I visited Nelson Mandela Place (renamed by Glasgow City Council in 1986 to signal their support for the free Mandela campaign). The former St George's Place also just happened to be home to the South African consulate!

I followed closely Mandela's four year campaign to become the first black President of South Africa. I rejoiced at his victory, but was a little unsure how he and his party would manage the transition to power.

Reading his biography showed me Mandela the man - his insecurities, his flaws, his issues. But it also highlighted how much of a consummate politician he was. Mandela knew how to make the romantic myth that had built up around him work for him.

His political agenda and showmanship could have left him sounding and looking like every other politician in the world. But somehow Mandela managed to portray a genuine, authentic and humane aura at all times.

"He had a moral authority and concern for the truth with which few could compete, as a rock of continuity in a discontinuous world."

He was generous and gracious with his time in the public limelight. But when he retired he made it clear that it was time to step back from the public stage so that he could focus on his family life.

Sampson's final statement reveals not only why Mandela was a hero of our times, but why his biography has been so well received & praised & read over the years.

"Mandela remained a master of symbolic images, but they had become part of his own personality and history, acquiring more universal appeal as he retired from politics to become an ordinary old man. He has survived the most testing challenge to his reputation when he emerged from jail to face up to his overwhelming global icon; and he did so by presenting himself as a fallible human being. His biography in the end converged with his mythology; and it was his essential integrity more than his superhuman myth which gave his story its appeal across the world."

Sampson's biography was updated in 2011 (after his death in 2004) with a new afterword by South African journalist John Battersby.


  1. Great post and of course topical. Mandela is a wonderful and incredible man, I shall look out for his biography. Another for my wishlist :)

  2. Anonymous4/7/13

    Lovely post! Thanks for highlighting this book -- and for carrying on with Flashback Friday in my absence! I'll be back on track this week. :)


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