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New biography analyses Mandela’s iconic appeal

A NEW biography of Nelson Mandela explores his iconic global appeal and traces his conciliatory political style to a patrician birth and childhood shielded from the indignities of South African racism.

Mandela: A Critical Lif

, by political analyst Tom Lodge, may raise a few eyebrows for its human portrayal and occasional gentle criticism of a man whom many regard as a secular saint.

However, as humility is one of Mandela’s endearing traits, it seems doubtful that the man himself, who turns 88 on July 18, would have any objections to the book.

“Both at court and at school, Mandela absorbed principles of etiquette and chivalry that remained important precepts through his public life,” writes Lodge, professor of peace and conflict studies at Limerick University in Ireland and a long-time commentator on South African affairs.

“…The absence in early life of intimidating or humiliating encounters with white people is significant, and, to an extent, distinguishes his childhood from many other black South African childhoods,” he says.

The attention that Lodge devotes to Mandela’s childhood in his subsequent development sets it apart from other works which have tended to focus on his adult activism and prison years.

Born into a clan of royal counsellors to a paramount chief, Mandela grew up in a world of rigid social customs which helps to explain his respect for authority and good manners.

Methodist boarding school may have instilled the discipline that would see him rise early to exercise all his life.

Lodge writes that, at the elite Methodist institution of Healdtown that he attended, “…relationships between black and white staff were at least formally collegial”.

Such collegiality would extend into Mandela’s part-time law studies at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, where he came into contact with white radicals in the 1940s.

Mandela did dally with African nationalism and was initially suspicious of the communists he eventually embraced as part of a united, multi-racial struggle against apartheid.

His belief in multi-racialism in the 1950s — at a time when the National Party, which came to power in 1948, was tightening apartheid laws — would become a major theme of his career with the African National Congress (ANC).

“ANC leaders, including Mandela, during the 1950s did believe in…racial conciliation. Helping to sustain such beliefs were the occasional courtesies and even empathy that they encountered in the most unexpected quarters,” Lodge writes.

These included a 1952 incident Mandela recalled when he ran out of petrol and managed to get some from a “friendly farmer” who was a relative of hard-line Prime Minister Hans Strydom.

Lodge plots and attempts to explain Mandela’s rise to superstar status on the world stage.

It is a status that he enjoys even in a busy retirement which has seen his activism extend to Aids awareness and his legacy celebrated in a comic book series.

Even during his days of early activism in Johannesburg, women were drawn to his warmth and striking good looks.

“Standing at six foot four inches he was, in the context of the 1940s, quite literally a giant…Charm was another crucial attribute,” Lodge writes.

His global legend would be cemented by his 27 years of imprisonment from August, 1962 — decades that coincided with the culmination of America’s civil rights movement, decolonisation across Africa and other waves of social protest.

They were also the decades that witnessed the rise of television and celebrity stardom. Through it all Mandela remained youthful in the public consciousness through
his pre-jailing activism and pictures.

“The imprisonment and isolation from public view kept the narrative and images that accompanied it pristine, invested with the glamour of martyrdom but reinforced by the apocalyptic possibilities of a second coming,” Lodge writes.

While Lodge does not make the comparison in his book, Mandela’s image was in some ways akin to that of the legendary Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.

“Incarceration kept Mandela young and pristine and, yes, militant…Pictures were also very important in the mythologisation of Che — both appealed to the sixties generation first and then later all sorts of young people,” Lodge told Reuters in response to e-mailed questions.

Mandela’s forgiveness towards his former jailers and oppressors as he guided his country to democracy and became its first black president also raised his stature.

It could be that Mandela’s deification stemmed from global public wariness and cynicism with politicians in general, whom many people regard as self-serving opportunists.

Lodge reminds us that this moral giant is also human.

“In all his modesty there is an ambiguity,” Lodge writes, referring to Mandela’s frequent use in public statements of the royal ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.

While Lodge does not pursue the connection, it is also a trait shared by Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki — a man seldom accused of modesty.

Lodge points out that the “politics of maintaining unity can be deeply authoritarian. Running alongside the admirable formal adherence by Mandela and his government to the tenets of liberal democracy… was a quite different discourse”.

“Black journalists who criticise the ANC, according to Mandela, ‘have been co-opted by conservative elements’… prominent individuals like Desmond Tutu should not criticise the ANC publicly — and South African politicians should emulate the example of Zimbabwe in fostering the politics of unity.”

If this sounds familiar, it should — it is the vocabulary that critics have come to associate with the ANC under Mbeki.

One of the services Lodge has rendered in this perceptive book is a reminder that these sentiments have been expressed before — in the more palatable packaging of Mandela, who still emerges from these pages as a head above the crowd. — Reuter.

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