In This Review

Mandela: A Critical Life
Mandela: A Critical Life
By Tom Lodge
Oxford University Press, 2006, 304 pp
Purchase

Lodge, a well-regarded longtime observer of South African politics, has written a splendid biography of South Africa's first democratic president. Nelson Mandela's life has been too well documented, not least in his own comprehensive autobiography, for Lodge's consistently readable account to reveal many previously unknown anecdotes. Instead of trying to unearth new details, Lodge focuses on Mandela's roots and education in order to explain his subsequent approach to politics as leader of the African National Congress. Lodge points to a youth in the Thembu aristocracy in Transkei, an Anglophile education in Methodist schools, and training as a lawyer to explain Mandela's sense of personal destiny, attachment to British-style democratic institutions, and ability to bridge his country's political divides. He shows how a combination of self-conscious charisma, graceful manners, and a deeply ingrained sense of political tolerance proved key to his effectiveness as a leader of the transition. Mandela's personal assets of a mythical stature within the ANC and the grudging respect of even the most intractable Afrikaner conservatives were based on skills and attitudes cultivated from childhood. Lodge avoids hagiography, notably in a final chapter that offers a measured and not uncritical assessment of Mandela's presidency, while making a compelling case for the man's historical importance.