The authorised Biography
It is not easy to write about a book I did not really enjoy reading but since I did not have anything else to read…
Anthony Sampson, journalist and author of books like Anatomy of Britain or Black and Gold, met Mandela in 1951 when he was editor of the black magazine Drums in Johannesburg. Sampson was a close observer of SA politics and the anti-Apartheid struggle. He visited SA frequently and kept in touch with the political and social development.
The book is structured in three parts, the first from 1918 to 1964 describing the development from the country boy Mandela (still of royal origin) over the ANC Youth leader to the freedom fighter (or, according to the government of the period: terrorist). The second part until 1990 illustrates the time in prison, the country’s development and the changes in relation to friends, family, and political enemies. The last part finally is about the difficult transition from the Apartheid regime to a new South African constitution and country focussing on Mandela’s impact and influence.
This book is certainly nice to read when one comes to SA and wants to know more about Mandela, his comrades (Sisulu, Tambo, Mbeki, Kathrada, Winnie Mandela, etc.) the ANC and the whole system of Apartheid. It is interesting to see how other, international aspects and actors influenced South Africa: the Second World War, the Cold war, the issue of communism, the UK (especially Thatcher), the USA, the struggle of independence, the world economy, the UN, the developments in other African states/colonies and so on.
The principal focus is on the political being Mandela but even if Sampson does not forget the family man, I did not really get in touch with the “person” Nelson Mandela. I also believe that a biography should provide a minimum of entertainment. In this sense the book is a complete failure. It is an objective and unemotional report of Mandela’s life.
There are too many details, every single letter, speech, discussion, and meeting seem to have been taken into consideration. This is a pity in my point of view because there is so many drama, ups and downs in Mandela’s life and South Africa’s history. Sampson could have written an outstanding book if only he had allowed more emotions and a little bit more intimacy. In his effort to draft an overall biography, not judging, not praising, not sucking up, he forgets one important aspect: to reveal who Mandela is.
What I felt was missing, is a real feeling for the living conditions of the black majority. Sampson does not spend a lot of time and paper to describe this and without leaving a lasting idea of how it has been. Once again, Sampson describes it but he fails to bring it close, to make the reader feel it.
When I read this book I had the feeling that it would never end, especially in the first part, when I had the impression that the 1950s were stretching like old chewing gum.
Only interesting quotation: “… a human being has an amazing capacity for adaptation, getting used, in due course, to some of the most impossible situations”
I don’t agree with the statement from the Sunday Telegraph on the cover: “It is hard to believe that a better biography will ever be written.”
Hopefully, a better one will be written, Mandela and South Africa would both deserve it.