Nelson Mandela, by Elleke Boehmer

How the martyr became a superstar

Reviewed,Stephen Howe
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:58

Almost anyone who grew up in the Sixties, Seventies or Eighties thought his first name was "Free". During his long years of imprisonment, he became a site, and a battleground, for symbolic struggles. Some young British right-wingers even took to sporting "Hang Mandela" badges, knowing that nothing was more likely to provoke liberals to blind fury. Since his release, his Presidency of the new South Africa, and now his long "retirement" devoted to so many good causes, Mandela's iconic status has continued to grow and to serve ever more multifarious purposes.

The greatest among many strengths of Elleke Boehmer's book is its examination of those multiple images, representations, personae, some crafted by Madiba (the clan name by which Mandela is widely known), some projected onto him by others. She does not try to match or repeat the detailed narrative of Madiba's life offered in previous biographies or in his own memoir Long Walk to Freedom – though she does give an excellent overview of his career. Her main task is far more ambitious and interesting, making this much more than just a "Very Short Introduction". It is, in a series of interlinked mini-essays, to trace the facets both of "Mandela the story" and "Mandela the symbol" – from his own changing but carefully crafted dress sense to his role in global celebrity culture.

The emphasis on careful self-fashioning does not imply seeing Madiba as some kind of fake or hollow showman: far from it. This is not a hostile, debunking portrait, but on balance still a deeply admiring one. Mandela was not responsible for the mistakes and excesses of the era of struggle. Indeed, all the evidence is that when he, in prison, knew about these (which he often did not), his advice was in the right direction. Still more, his record in and since power in relation to the accumulating disasters and moral failings of ANC government – corruption, Aids denial, authoritarianism, ineptitude and even a renewed racialised rhetoric – is near-impeccable. Even so, a harsher accounting with the Madiba legacy may be needed than Boehmer's wonderful book provides.

Her partial reliance on literary postcolonialism and its over-familiar canon is Boehmer's Achilles' heel. She strains to bring Mandela into theoretical relationship with Frantz Fanon, despite the lack of direct evidence that Madiba ever read him. This is because Fanon is such an emblematic figure in these academic circles. By contrast, there is almost no mention of the Vietnamese, Chinese and other politico-military texts which we know Mandela and other Umkhonto we Sizwe leaders were reading. This is part of a wider blind spot in relation to the influence on Mandela, and the ANC, of orthodox Communist and Marxist-Leninist thought.

For many years, the South African Communist Party effectively dominated ANC strategic thinking; Mandela was far from exempt, though there seems doubt whether he was ever, even nominally, an SACP member himself. Among the forces shaping the man and his movement, many of which Boehmer analyses so brilliantly, this one receives far less than its due. For partial correctives, one could go to Padraig O'Malley's fine biography of ANC stalwart Mac Maharaj (Mandela's own long Foreword to that is one of the most revealing things he has written), or Howard Barrell's analysis of ANC military strategy, available online.

Stephen Howe is professor of post-colonial history at Bristol University

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