NELSON MANDELA: IN HIS OWN WORDS
Edited by Wilmot James, Kadar Asmal, and
Little, Brown, $28.95,
ROBERT M. SMALLEY
This book, entitled “Nelson Mandela: In His Own Words,” is not quite what it claims to be. The text is indeed a compilation of Mr. Mandela’s speeches and other public remarks throughout his long and varied life, but it is supplemented by the articles, recollections, judgments and other writings of friends and supporters of his endless efforts to bring about a new system of government and a new way of life in his shattered and weary nation.
Included are only two international contributors of note, Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan. Not of note is a brief message of praise from Fidel Castro. Mr. Mandela’s own statement to the Rivonia Trial Court , “I am prepared to die” ranks as one of the great speeches of the 20th century. But when the words veer away from Mr. Mandela’s own to become those of others, one is often served a verbal stew apparently designed to link Mr. Mandela with virtually every left-wing cause in the universe.
Mr. Mandela was, by admission, influenced by Marxist thinking in his younger days. On occasion, he has made note of the close alliance between his own party, the African National Congress, and the South African Communist Party. But he has denied ever being a Communist Party member and has asserted that as a young man he helped break up Communist Party meetings.
It is difficult if not impossible to recall any prisoner of any society on earth who was transformed from captive into global icon with greater esteem than was Nelson Mandela upon ultimately becoming a free man in South Africa. From his first day of freedom there was no doubt that he was destined for national leadership in a new nation that did not yet exist, one that only he could create by forcing the white grip on political power to come to an end.
On that first day of freedom, Mr. Mandela’s weathered face reflected the sun and sea of Robben Island, just as his 27 years of abuse, patience and commitment to achieve the end of apartheid were the keys to unlock the kingdom. The leader in South Africa’s House of Assembly wrote for this book, “South Africa is, as far as my knowledge goes, the only country that negotiated itself out of domination and into democracy without any outside interference or assistance.”
Biographer Anthony Sampson called Mr. Mandela, “a universal hero” and Adrian Hardland wrote of him, “He has become the triumph of the human spirit.” Mr. Mandela spared himself no burden in his speeches, from dismantling South Africa’s nuclear weapons program on his first day as president, to combating AIDS vigorously at the end of his presidency.
Just as Mr. Mandela was becoming increasingly aware of developments in South Africa, he suffered the loss of his father when he was nine. In those years he was caught up in student activism and was expelled from a prestigious school — for protesting against bad food.
In his first years as a young man he took up ballroom dancing, boxing, greatly enjoyed long-distance running, and signed up for a dramatic society. Officials of another school attempted to force Nelson and a friend to marry girls that the officials had selected for them, but neither boy approved the would-be brides, and to avoid unhappy marriages both boys fled to Johannesburg, the city of gold, in a search for work.
The young Mandela found a job as a policeman in the mines, and he became acutely aware of the day-to-day injustices in the apartheid system. By day he studied law, lived in a back room in a noisy, dirty slum in the black community of Alexandra, outside of Cape Town. Hungry, poor, dressed in thread-bare clothes, he sometimes walked 12 miles to and from work to save his bus fare. He went to work for a small law firm, where they advised him, “Stay out of politics.”
He did no such thing. He and Oliver Tambo formed the first black law firm in South Africa, and soon he had to start evading the apartheid authorities. He became known as The Black Pimpernel, taking refuge in varying places throughout Africa, until he was betrayed and captured. He spent a brief period on Robben Island before being brought back to stand trial for his life.
In his four-hour speech to the court telling them he was willing to die for his principles, Mr. Mandela expressed a commitment that was heard around the world.
His long walk to freedom, epic though it was, clearly established that he alone could succeed only if he had a sharp, intelligent, idealistic negotiating partner from the white side of the fence.
That someone, beyond doubt, was Frederick de Klerk, the National Party leader and its final President of the Republic of South Africa. This reviewer, in the region at the time, heard recurring reports of angry exchanges between the two men, sparked largely, it was said, by Mr. Mandela during their conversations and negotiations.
However, in all fairness it must be noted that when all was done, Mr. Mandela repeatedly praised and thanked Mr. de Klerk for his great role in their joint efforts to create a new South Africa, knowing that this man was sparing himself no burden in his effort to create a new nation, and it was this effort which led to their joint roles as Nobel laureates.
He said of Mr. de Klerk, “He had the courage to admit that a terrible wrong had been done to our country and our people through the system of Apartheid.” Mr. De Klerk insisted that all the people of the new nation must be equal in their new South Africa. He then unbanned the ANC, and released the political prisoners.
No single step could have signaled greater victory for Mr. Mandela, who continued to be a member of the African National Congress as long as he was in public office. He firmly denied again that he was a member of the Communist Party.
Sadly, his one great failing revealed in this book was an inability or unwillingness to understand the true nature of America’s great economic strength, and what it could have done for South Africa. Mr. Mandela never seemed to comprehend the strength, power and productivity of the Americans — until he began meeting American celebrities.
He never seemed to quit flogging the American system. Instead, he seemed locked into the old communist jargon. Perhaps there is still another new path to be trod, one in which Mr. Mandela will see the light at last, and American leaders will see the value of investing in South Africa.
Ambassador Robert M. Smalley (Ret.) was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.