King across the water

Mandela: The Authorised Biography by Anthony Sampson HarperCollins pounds 24.99
The South African electorate has just voted Nelson Mandela's successor into power. In a week or two, the country's first black president will stand down. He intends, so it is said, to retire to a modest house he has had built near Qunu, his birthplace in the Transkei. A beautiful but desolate part of the country, the Transkei is rich in rolling hills and tortuous rivers but poor in every other respect: overgrazed, deforested, overpopulated with children and old people living meagrely on the money sent to them by their sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, who are at work in the cities.

Like hundreds of thousands of young men before him, Mandela left the Transkei in search of adventure and opportunity. He returns to it at the age of 80 as the most famous man South Africa has ever produced - more celebrated even than Paul Kruger, president of the last Boer republic, or Cecil Rhodes. While one can only wonder what they might have made of the Mandela phenomenon, I have no doubt that stark incredulity would have been a large part of their response. Indeed, a proper measure of incredulity seems to me a fitting response to his career among his contemporaries too.

George Orwell once wrote that saints have to be judged guilty until they are proved innocent. I myself have no inclination to sanctify Mandela. He has often been profoundly misguided in his judgments and political beliefs. He was a hopeless commander of the "armed struggle" he tried to launch against the Afrikaner Nationalist government. At times he has shown himself to be as devious as any other politician (not least when seeking support for his African National Congress). His private life, in so far as he can be said to have had one, has been filled with pain for himself, his wives and his children. As president of a country uncertainly moving into an era greatly different from anything it has known before, he has made a habit of mistaking assertion for action, exhortation for policy.

All this can be discerned - though some of it appears only in between the lines - in this painstaking new biography. None of it is inconsequential, yet when set against Mandela's personal and political achievements, such reservations dwindle into little more than the fissures or rockfalls one might see when trying to bring into focus an entire mountain.

Strength and magnanimity are the qualities for which he most deserves to be honoured. They are not simple attributes, nor are they frequently found in conjunction. More remarkably still, they appear in his case to be indistinguishable from a sense of self-worth which never faltered in the face of the casual or systematic contempt with which white South Africa used to treat all persons of colour. The insecurity lying behind the contempt would invariably show itself in an immediate resort to violence at any sign of "cheek": the greatest cheek of all, of course, being a demand by the subject races for equal rights with their masters.

Mandela's campaign to win such rights, initially through legal and conventional means, and then by going underground to fight the increasingly oppressive laws passed by successive Afrikaner Nationalist governments, led him to a life-sentence and imprisonment on Robben Island, just off the coast from Cape Town. It was there that he was to become, in effect, a king across the water - in his own eyes, in the eyes of his fellow-prisoners, in those of his followers in South Africa and abroad, and, most surprisingly of all, in the eyes of the people who had imprisoned him. Some of the warders on the island were the first Afrikaners to recognise and even succumb to his style of leadership; prime ministers and presidents eventually followed.

But how many years, how many days, how many nights that word "eventually" covers; how much physical hardship and psychological torment. It is true that piecemeal improvements to the conditions under which he was held, and his stage-by-stage release, would never have been brought about without concurrent economic and political transformations taking place inside South Africa itself, as well as a shift in the balance of power in the world at large. Over those events Mandela obviously had no control. Yet when his hour came around, he knew how to use it. Reading of his release, I could not help comparing it with the expulsion from the Soviet Union of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the century's other most famously obdurate long-term prisoner and exile, who, by very different means, did as much as any single person could to destroy the Soviet empire from within.

Inevitably, perhaps, the most absorbing chapters in Sampson's biography are those devoted to the years spent on Robben Island. Much about the period remains unknown, unspoken, probably inexpressible. However, in addition to using Mandela's own accounts of his prison experience, Sampson has drawn extensively on interviews with fellow-prisoners and jailers, cabinet ministers and heads of the intelligence service. It clearly emerges that it was during those years that Mandela schooled himself to patience, intentness, singleness of aim, to that combination of detachment and resolution which became peculiarly his own. It was there that he acquired the capacity never to let a humiliation or provocation pass unrebuked, while never allowing himself to be thrown off balance by it.

It was there that he learned first to understand his enemies and then to win them over, even to bend them to his will. His method was at once simple and all-demanding. He showed no animus towards them. Hence the studied magnanimity of his behaviour to his captors before his release, and the absence after it of any impulse to take revenge either on individuals or on groups. In power he never revealed anything of the rancour of the former underdog. I remember the unforgiving glee of the Afrikaner Nationalists when they first came to power and were in a position at last to take revenge for their defeat in the Anglo-Boer War. Mandela has shown not a flicker of such sentiments. To the chagrin of some of his more extreme supporters, he has repeatedly sought occasions to visit or be visited by his former opponents.

Anthony Sampson's book is described as the "authorised" biography; I suspect it will remain for many years the standard biography too. His narrative does not always succeed in strking a balance between the man and the events he was involved in - which is hardly surprising, given the complexities of both. Mandela evidently feels deeply how great has been the price he had to pay, as a private person, for his achievements in public life. But whatever the future may now hold for him and for his country, South Africa has been extraordinarily luckly in having had such a man to oversee the radical changes he himself did so much to bring about.