Peeking under Madiba’s halo

Rescuing Nelson Mandela from the dry pages of history …

Wearing the traditional clothes he wore at his 1962 trial. (Reproduced from Young Nelson - picture from RIM/Mayibuye Archive)

TWO foreigners, two books on Nelson Mandela, two entirely different approaches.
Mandela’s Way by Richard Stengel and Young Mandela by David James Smith do have a couple of things in common, though.
Both are well-written, which isn’t so surprising since Stengel is Time magazine’s editor and Smith writes for the British Sunday Times Magazine.
And even though Stengel describes the father of the nation – uTata – as “perhaps the last pure hero on the planet”, both manage to portray a real person, rather than a haloed saint.
In some ways, Stengel’s book is the lighter of the two, although he has the insider edge having spent almost three years shadowing the great man – travelling with him, eating with him, privileged to hear him think out loud as they collaborated on Long Walk to Freedom.
Mandela even wrote the preface to Stengel’s book, describing the author as someone who grasps the idea of ubuntu, whose insight into the “many complex leadership challenges facing the world today” we can all learn from.
For Smith, who didn’t know Mandela, The Nelson Mandela Foundation was something of an ally, even though, as he says, they “knew from the outset that my plan was to rescue the sainted Madiba from the dry pages of history, to strip away the myth and create a fresh portrait of a rounded human being”. With the foundation’s help, Smith was able to access almost forgotten papers and to enter “Mandela’s trusted circle” of family and friends.
The result, Young Mandela, explores the reasons for the former President’s activism through the story of his childhood up to his Treason Trial sentence.
Unbelievably – given the vast number of words that have been written about the world’s favourite statesman – some new details emerge, making it not just another book about Mandela.
As gripping as any spy novel, it brings to life the danger, indignity and camaraderie endured by those who fought for freedom. Names that are now legendary people the pages; stories of petty spats, romance and betrayal make it as vivid as a movie script.
90-year-old knees
Early last year, Smith says he was ushered into an office in Johannesburg where someone – who didn’t get up when he entered – was seated behind a huge desk.
My knees will not allow it, the elderly man explained by way of apology.
“The knees were 90 years old and belonged to Nelson Mandela,” writes Smith.
While I wouldn’t go quite as far as the cover blurb, which describes Smith’s book as “the single most important contribution to our knowledge of this global icon”, it’s a worthwhile addition.
Mandela’s Way
Stengel’s Mandela’s Way, part biography, part self-help manual, demonstrates as the title says, how Madiba’s way of dealing with life’s tribulations can be put to use in our own lives.
Chapters with headings like Courage Is Not the Absence of Fear; See the Good in Others; and Quitting is Leading Too, are illustrated with real examples from Mandela’s own life.
Got an enemy? Get to know him. Mandela did – studying Afrikaans grammar and even poetry. How could he defeat his enemy, he reasoned, if he couldn’t understand him?
In a tense spot? Stay calm.
“In the moments I have been with Mandela in a crisis, he has always been intensely calm, entering a kind of Zen state,” writes Stengel.
In 1993, Mandela – at his Transkei home with Stengel – had promised to say hello to a visiting East London rugby team. Breaking off from greeting them when the phone rang, he took the call in the kitchen.
“Chris Hani has been shot and killed,” Stengel recalls Mandela saying.
“I asked by whom. He said he did not know and then … he strode out of the kitchen and back to the driveway to continue shaking hands with the East London rugby team.”
It was “a terrible tipping point” for the country, threatening to descend into a bloody civil war.
Mandela, says Stengel, was icily calm.
It was Mandela, not State President FW de Klerk who addressed South Africa on national television that night, pointing out that though a white man had “committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster”, a white woman “of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know and bring to justice this assassin”.
Many times while working on Long Walk to Freedom, Stengel says he had to ask: “What would Nelson Mandela do?”
It was a powerful exercise, he says.
“As distant as his life’s circumstances might be from our own, his example gives us something to hold on to ….”

 The books: Young Mandela by David James Smith (Weidenfeld & Nicolson); 
Mandela’s Way by Richard Stengel (Virgin Books)
This review feature by Stevie Godson was first published in the Saturday Dispatch (July 17, 2010)

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This entry was posted by stevieg on Sunday, July 18th, 2010 at 6:16 am and is filed under A Passion for Words, General . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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  8. […] last pure hero on the planet”, both manage to portray a real person, rather than a haloed saint.Complete review at Word NerdsBook DetailsMandela’s Way: Lessons on Life by Richard Stengel EAN: 9780753519332 Find this […]

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