An Unreliable Friend

R.W. Johnson

  • Mandela: The Authorised Biography by Anthony Sampson
    HarperCollins, 500 pp, £24.99, May 1999, ISBN 0 00 255829 7

One of the oddities about living in South Africa is that a whole lot of people who have left the country still believe that they know better than those of us who live here what goes on. The reason for this is that South Africa is seen as the supreme paradigm both of colonial exploitation and of black-white relations – what Nadine Gordimer called ‘the last great colonial extravaganza’. Having seen apartheid crumble and the ANC come to power, such folk know that good has triumphed over evil and that if any problems persist, they can only be due to the legacy of apartheid. Any suggestion that the truth is actually a lot more complicated is often met with rage and moral disapproval.

This Manichaean certainty reaches its zenith in the cult of Mandela. The cult has solid foundations, of course; Mandela himself is far too nice a human being to encourage it – though being human, he undoubtedly enjoyed floating around in the bubble of adulation it created. The facts are that he is a fine-looking man of great moral stature and integrity who displayed a stolid and unbroken resolve through 27 years of captivity. He is, at the same time, a gentle person who loves children and is not averse to a joke at his own expense. ‘Never underestimate his simplicity,’ one of his fellow prisoners on Robben Island told me not long after his release. ‘It is his weakness and it is his overwhelming strength. He had a delight in simple games which was frankly childlike.’ But there is also the small matter of his Presidency, in a country which is notoriously difficult to govern and which has not fared well under his stewardship. The bill which is now coming in for those five years is so big that it is impossible not to feel sympathy for his successor.

The problem is that the world needs a hero like Mandela. The burden of white guilt is so heavy and yet the facts of African failure are so incontrovertible. The certainty that racism and slavery, white supremacy and apartheid were all evil and wrong is fiercer now than ever, but if the only alternatives on offer are corruption, tyranny and decay then how can one confront those ghosts of the past without hearing a mocking voice of self-justification? To beat that, one needs a black superman, an embodiment not only of suffering but of virtue and wisdom. And there have been so many disappointments. Nkrumah turned out to be a despot, Nyerere and Kaunda destroyed their own countries and did not tolerate opposition, Amilcar Cabral’s country split into two and fell into decay just as the Portuguese said it would. And so on. The demand that Mandela should be the true black superhero has been correspondingly fierce.

All of which makes the biographer’s job difficult: Sampson continually tells us that ‘Mandela is no saint’ but he never describes any unsaintly behaviour. In any case the glaze of admiration around Mandela is so thick that it can take any amount of knocks. For example, Sampson approvingly quotes Mandela’s condemnation of British behaviour in Kenya – ‘Children are being burnt alive, women are raped, tortured, whipped and boiling water poured on their breasts’ – though Sampson surely knows that the British didn’t go about roasting babies. Another politician might be damaged by making such statements or, as Mandela has, by demanding the vote for 14-year-olds or, worst of all, by claiming at the ANC’s conference in 1997 that the opposition parties and much of the press were part of a vast counter-revolutionary conspiracy which was also deliberately fomenting crime. But Mandela has got away with this, and more. The need for the black superhero is too overwhelming for any criticism to stick and the fortitude of those years in jail trumps all other considerations.

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