This book does exactly what it says on the tin. It takes the 95 years of Mandela’s life and pares it down to a short, readable biography. If you want detail, then read Anthony Sampson’s “Mandela” or of course Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” and “Dare Not Linger: the Presidential Years”, edited by Mandla Langa. There is, moreover, no-one better placed than Peter Hain to write what is essentially a brief life. Peter Hain’s parents, Walter and Adeline, were anti-apartheid activists in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, who fled to the UK in 1966, following years of persecution. Peter, himself, earned the undying hatred of the apartheid regime by organising the opposition to the tour of the UK of the South African rugby team in 1969, and forcing the South African cricket team to cancel its planned visit for 1970.
So the first thing that has to be clear is that this is not a neutral biography. Peter Hain grew up knowing Nelson Mandela, through his parents, and went on to play a significant role in the international struggle against apartheid. Nor is this a neutral review. I have been acquainted with Peter Hain since 1968, and I served as Chairperson of the London Anti-Apartheid Committee during the 1980s.
Having established the credentials of the author (and the reviewer) what is there to say about the book? Although it is short, it is insightful. Hain’s description of Mandela’s childhood in the Eastern Cape, it is essential to the understanding of the man. He was an aristocrat, who became the head of the clan Madiba when his father died.. He was brought up from 9 years old by Jongintaba, his father’s cousin and the Regent of the Thembu Kingdom. This is often portrayed as an idyllic life, herding cattle, because Mandela had fond memories of it, but it was a life of rural poverty even for those who held important positions in Xhosa society. It was here, however, that Mandela learned the concepts of duty and service to his people. It was here that he learned the history and traditions of his people, and underwent circumcision to become a man, in accordance with ritual.
Mandela eventually made his way to Johannesburg, avoiding an arranged marriage. It was here that he met his friend and mentor, Walter Sisulu, joined the African National Congress and became committed to securing the right of the majority of the South African population to participate in the government of their country. Throughout the course of the book, Peter Hain guides us through the development of Mandela’s political ideas, succinctly and accurately. Hain does not gloss over any of the difficulties here. When Mandela helped to found the ANC Youth League, he was an Africanist. This was a position that he changed because of his experiences working with Indians, Coloureds and Whites in the struggle against apartheid. Once he had become committed to building a non-racial South Africa, he did not waver from this position.
Nor does Peter Hain shy away from Mandela’s personal difficulties. His first wife, Evelyn Mase, was a committed Christian with no interest in politics and, although they had three children, it soon became clear that they were incompatible. Evelyn left him. Then he met Nomzano Winnie Madikizela, who was much younger than him, and they got married. Meanwhile Mandela’s political opposition to apartheid was developing. He was banned, tried for treason and eventually acquitted. Then following the Sharpeville Massacre and the banning of the ANC and other organisations, he went on the run, and set up Umkhonto we Sizwe, a military organisation of which he was Commander-in-Chief. He went abroad for military training, returned to South Africa and was eventually captured. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment, for incitement to strike and for leaving the country without a passport. Then the leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe was captured at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, and Mandela was put on trial alongside them. Peter Hain guides us through these momentous events and the subsequent Rivonia Trial with great skill, summarising the key moments. Mandela’s speech from the dock with its ringing declaration of “if needs be, I am prepared to die” reverberated around the whole world. The judge, Quartus de Wet, did not impose the death penalty. He sentenced the Rivonia trialists to life imprisonment.
The story now breaks into two segments. There are the struggles in prison to secure their dignity as individuals. There was the struggle outside the prison, in which Winnie stepped up to the mark and confronted the power of the apartheid state. Some of the struggles in prison seem to be quite ordinary. There was the fight to be allocated long trousers. African men were given shorts to wear because they were “boys”. Indians and Coloured were allowed to wear long trousers because they were not black Africans. Whites did not enter into the equation because they were kept in a separate prison. There was apartheid even in the gaols. There were also differences in the food made available, depending on your racial classification. If this seems petty, it is because the authorities were petty, and these struggles were essentially to secure human dignity. Peter Hain is very good at explaining these confrontations and Mandela’s relations with the warders, eventually winning them over.
Meanwhile outside the prisons, Winnie faced harassment, banning, detention, humiliation and torture. She was eventually sent as an internal exile to Brandfort in the Orange Free State where she did not speak the local language (Sesotho). Everything was done to try to break her. Peter Hain shows the stresses and strains which she endured, and how the 27 years of separation ruined their marriage.
The struggle against apartheid intensified in both South Africa and internationally. Inside the country, trade unions, although illegal, were being formed by the black workers and Black Consciousness was making itself felt. Internationally, led by the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, the campaign for boycott and sanctions was gaining momentum. And then, the Portuguese Fascist government, following military defeats in Africa, collapsed. Angola and Mozambique became independent, and the children of South Africa refused to be taught in Afrikaans, leading to the Soweto Uprising of 1976. Peter Hain is very adroit in explaining the significance of all these events, and how they were game changers.
By the mid-1980s, the apartheid regime, trying to face down growing internal unrest and growing international condemnation, were forced into covert negotiations Mandela. Peter Hain is adept at explaining the formation of COSATU, the rise of the UDF and the collaboration of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan with the apartheid regime, trying to resist the growing demand for sanctions.
There is one point of accuracy in which I disagree with Peter Hain. Govan Mbeki, one of the Rivonia Trialists alongside Mandela, was released by PW Botha in 1987, not by FW De Klerk in 1989. I know this, because on the day of Mbeki’s release I was being greeted by his son, Thabo, at the ANC International Solidarity Conference at Arusha in Tanzania and I congratulated Thabo on the release of his father. This, however, is a minor error in the narrative.
Peter Hain then takes us through the tumultuous years from the release of Mandela to his inauguration as President. The defining factor was the need to avoid civil war. It cam very close. 10,000 people were murdered in those four years. Agents of the apartheid state tried desperately to stop the process of democratisation. Peter Hain makes it very clear that it was Mandela’s steely determination that held the line and enabled the process to go forward.
I know that Peter Hain’s brief account of the election is substantially correct because I was there. We even had a drink together in a hotel bar once the count was over. Peter Hain’s account of the presidential years is also on target, citing the need for reconciliation as the most pressing. This however did not mean that the truth was to be ignored which is why Mandela set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The last two chapters are called “Mandela Magic” and “Legacy Betrayed?”. The very titles tell us what they are about. “Mandela Magic” deals with the charm and charisma of the man, which is unquestionable. He won over all of us who had the privilege of meeting him. “Legacy Betrayed?” is about Peter Hain’s view of how South Africa has developed under Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, Mandela’s successors as President. It is not a view with which I would substantially disagree. It is, however, for you to make up your mind about that.
Peter Hain has written a very brief biography (196 pages) of Nelson Mandela.. It covers all the basics. It does not avoid any of the difficulties, such as the controversies around the behaviour of Winnie Mandela. It is a succinct account of a long and complex life. It is a very good book.