Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The long, complicated life of a remarkable individual in Nelson Mandela

From the Week of June 10, 2013

For all of civilization's advantages, for all that it creates capital, organizes industry, encourages socialization and allows for institutions that aid us all, it is not without risks. Beyond the libraries and the schools, the theatres and the shopping malls, the courts and the law-enforcers, made possible by it, civilization is fundamentally a system for concentrating power from the disparate and disordered masses and into the hands of the few who in turn put it to useful purpose. Most often, this power is applied reasonably, even constructively, but it can also be twisted, shaped into a weapon for controlling the people instead of aiding them. Sadly, we Mont' have to look very far into our history to find horrific examples of just such abuse.

When civilization goes bad, when those we trusted most turn against us and use the powers we have given them against us, what do we do? We can fight, but in a time of increasing, technological advancement, are our overwhelming numbers sufficient against a well-armed, well-drilled force of professional killers? We can disobey, speaking out and winding up in jail for our pains, but will anyone listen to us over the din of the government's demonization of our characters? We can leave, but what message does that send to those we leave behind? Worse, what does it say to those brave souls who chose to stay and fight? What is the right thing to do when faced with such a massive threat? We turn to Anthony Sampson's biography for answers.

Only eight years younger than the state of South Africa, Nelson Mandela is undoubtedly one of the most famous freedom fighters in modern history. The son of a proud, tribal lineage, he was born into a land that had been conquered and colonized by the British Empire which, along with other western European powers, had spent the preceding century laying claim to an entire continent of people and their resources. However heartless this imperialism, having itself only come in the wake of centuries of enslavement and forced relocation, it was, to some degree, a world with standards of education and faith, morals and dignity, all of which a young Mandela soaked up as a citizen of this civilizing system which promised opportunities to those willing to seize them.

Nelson Mandela's customary, colonial existence, however, came to an end in 1948 when, freed from British rule, the newly elected National Party institutionalized racism. The seeds of western superiority sewn into the fabric of South African society flowered with apartheid which not only outlawed interacial marriage, but called for the uprooting of Africans out of white neighborhoods, crowding them into ghettos in which they could safely be ignored. Forbidden from owning businesses by white colonials, the black Africans were confined to narrow lives of unemployment and servitude, a situation the young Mandela found intolerable. Rejecting his life as a lawyer, he spoke out against apartheid's cruel policies, fighting them in court and in public until his vociferousness, and his community organizing against Apartheid, finally earned him a long stint in the infamous robben Island prison where he and his fellow political prisoners would linger for decades, chained by a government that could no more understand them than recognize its own ignorance.

From jail, Nelson Mandela became an agent of change. For 27 years, he read, learned and spoke out against the government that had jailed his friends and taken him away from his family. This constant, dignified agitation bore little fruit until the 1980s when a combination of international political pressure and the rising power of Mandela's political party at home compelled the ruling party to negotiate with Mandela and the ANC, talks that would eventually lead to Mandela's freedom and the freedom of his country from decades of appalling oppression.

The biography of a most remarkable man, Nelson Mandela is an eminently readable chronicle of an extraordinary life. Mr. Sampson, a journalist present at some of the key moments in his subject's life, guides the reader through the many fazes of Mandela's existence, beginning with the young and relatively innocent lawyer and concluding with the powerful symbol of freedom in the face of tyranny. Between, he examines, at length, Mandela's long career as a political agitator, from the incidents that lead to Apartheid's banning of the ANC to the the negotiations that would end his long exile in prison. All of this is accomplished with clarity and without becoming bogged down in any one part of Mandela's long and complicated story which is itself an accomplishment.

Though the work contains numerous revelatory moments for those unversed in Nelson Mandela's story, none are more potent, or moving, than his intellectual and spiritual resistance to the many forces that sought to reduce him from a man of character to an animal of savagery. Provocations from the apartheid regime and pressures from his fellow freedom fighters sought to encourage Mandela into greater acts of violence that would discredit not only his leadership, but the legitimacy of his movement and the message it sought to convey to South Africa and the world. Above all else, it is this that makes Mandela special. For he did not fall back on spiritualism to resist the temptation to fight fire with fire. He used his mind. He read, he thought, and he formed arguments that stripped away the veneer of apartheid and exposed it for what it was, a selfish, foolish disgrace that stained the world for far too long. Mandela's capacity to rise above those who sought to break him will be an inspiration for generations of freedom fighters to come. He is one of humanity's best and most noble children.

For all of its subject's glory, Nelson Mandela is a flawed work. Mr. Sampson succeeds in bringing Mandela to life, but he fails at virtually every other turn to flesh out the world around him. The key events in the struggle against Apartheid are never described in any detail. Moreover, the actors who both aided and opposed Mandela are cruelly underrepresented here. With but one or two exceptions, they are simply names who appear here only as a means of furthering Mandela's story. This is a biography of Nelson Mandela, but he was but the most important spoke in a large wheel. To have the other spokes be so marginalized does them, and the reader, a disservice.

Nonetheless, this is a most thorough document of a legend of humanity. We will all be diminished when he leaves us. For in him, we see the potential for greatness in our species: kindness and fierceness, compassion and determination, cooperativeness and leadership. That he was able to master these virtues in the face of endless provocation and temptation is a lesson to us all. He will never be forgotten. (3/5 Stars)

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