Books: Iron man: perpetual enigma

NELSON MANDELA: A Biography by Martin Meredith Hamish Hamilton pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
To call this the best biography so far of Nelson Mandela is fainter praise than it might seem. Both the previous efforts, by Fatima Meer and Mary Benson, are near-hagiographies from devoted followers, while the old man's own memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, is so laconic and impersonal in style that some have retitled it "Long Read to Freedom".

If there is anyone in the 20th century who fits the 19th-century concept of the "Great Life", in which the reader may find example and inspiration, it is surely South Africa's president, who emerged from 27 years in prison to forgive and win the allegiance of his white oppressors. But the history of Mandela and his country is too complex to be confined to a morality tale, and it required someone more fluent and detached to deal with it.

Martin Meredith, a veteran writer and academic researcher on Africa, understands the struggle against white domination in the south of the continent as well as any of the participants, but is more able than they are to point out their miscalculations and mistakes. His judgements of Mandela are frequently severe - in the late 1940s he was more of a gadfly than a serious political activist; as a newly qualified lawyer his spending and womanising troubled his more sober friends. When Mandela went underground, he was too boastful and amateurish in his personal security to remain undetected for long, and his first speech on his release many years later was "crude" and "partisan".

Mandela himself, asked how nearly three decades in prison had changed him, replied: "I came out mature." His lack of bitterness has been much commented upon, but Meredith adds that the iron self-control required to survive on Robben Island has left him uneasy and reticent in discussing his personal feelings, even with his closest friends. Indeed, he often appears more at ease with strangers or acquaintances, especially if they are rich or famous. The most wrenching moment in the book is during Mandela's divorce from the turbulent Winnie, when he is forced to admit in open court that there was no resumption of marital relations upon his return: "I was the loneliest man."

This intense privacy is a curse for any biographer - or autobiographer - but often Meredith seems as relieved as his subject to turn from the personal to the political. In many ways this is a history rather than a biography; Mandela's times rather than his life. It reveals very little new about either, but what it does better than any other account is to set Mandela in context.

As the exhaustive eight-page bibliography shows, Meredith has drawn on almost every relevant source. He takes us confidently and clearly through the tribal society into which Mandela was born, the history of the African National Congress, the Communist Party and other allies such as the Indian Congress, the rise of Afrikaner nationalism and developments both in South Africa and among the exiled opposition while Mandela was shut away. One of the principal themes is how long it took the ANC to appreciate the determination of the white government to deny blacks their rights, and how reluctantly and often incompetently it turned to armed resistance.

Like his organisation, Mandela was better at embodying the principle of equality than at the political or military manoeuvring required to bring it about. What he has above all is the dignity and authority of a leader, qualities which persuaded deeper-thinking ANC figures such as Walter Sisulu to follow him. As Meredith demonstrates, his immovable self- belief kept him unbroken on Robben Island and preserved him from any temptation to compromise with white leaders seeking to cling on to what power they could. Both before and after South Africa's first free election Mandela made errors, sometimes dangerous ones, but he was also capable of the boldness required to achieve, in Meredith's words, "a negotiated revolution".

This book breaks a three-year drought since Long Walk to Freedom. Coming soon are the memoirs of F W de Klerk, South Africa's last white leader, and Anthony Sampson's authorised Mandela biography, which may at last succeed in getting behind the mask of this late 20th-century icon. Meredith's record of the public man is impeccable, but for the moment Mandela remains an enigma.