Strange Bedfellows: Mandela, de Klerk, and the New South Africa

When President Clinton welcomed Nelson Mandela to Washington in 1998, he spoke of the universal nature of suffering and hatred, the "apartheid of the heart." The world adulates Mandela, he continued, because it seeks "wisdom from the power of his example É to do whatever we can, however we can, wherever we can, to take the apartheid out of our own and others' hearts." Mandela, along with the heinous system he negotiated out of existence and the country he led into freedom, have lost all specificity and become universal metaphors.

In his definitive biography of Mandela, Anthony Sampson notes that "cynical politicians" are wont to "wipe away tears in Mandela's presence, perhaps seeing him as a secular saint who makes their own profession seem noble, who rises above their failings." Despite all the regal pomp that surrounds Mandela on his world travels, "he still manages to appear as the plain man with whom anyone could identify, like a Gary Cooper or a James Stewart, embodying simple values in a cynical world of technicians and manipulators" that bypassed him as he spent 27 years in jail. The Mandela story is "the world's favorite fairy tale." South Africa's transition to democracy is mythologized as a miracle and Mandela as the saint who made it happen. But Sampson -- a British journalist who helped Mandela craft his famously ringing statement in the 1964 Rivonia sabotage trial -- enlists the aid of Albie Sachs, one of the architects of South Africa's democratic constitution and now one of its Constitutional Court judges, to pull his subject -- and South Africa -- back to reality. The "South African miracle," Sachs has written, was in fact "the most predicted and consciously and rationally worked-for happening one could ever have imagined, and certainly the most unmiraculous."

Sampson's biography is authorized and thus sets out to explain, rather than deconstruct, its subject. His book soars, like any good biography should, on the wings of detail. It is written with an affectless lucidity and is both acute and cool-headed in its assessments. But perhaps because of its own emotional reserve and eschewal of the tools of psychoanalytic biography, it does not quite succeed in what it sets out to do: "penetrating the Mandela icon."

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