At over 700 pages, Nelson Mandela's autobiography might look like a serious commitment. Actually though, it doesn't feel like a heavy book at all. Like the thinking which informs it, the writing is clear, measured and straightforward, albeit scattered with bits of Harvard English that are presumably down to Mandela's (uncredited) American ghostwriter, Richard Stengel.
I sped through it in under a week, thanks mainly to a couple of long train journeys. I'm left with a much more nuanced view of Mandela and what he stood for, and a much clearer idea of the man behind the symbol.
What I found particularly valuable were the insights into how deeply apartheid ingrained racism not just on to the white minority, but on to the attitudes and assumptions throughout the whole of South African society. Mandela at one point mentions being struck by the sight of a young beggar-girl by the side of the road in a township, and reacting completely differently because she was white:While I did not normally give to African beggars, I felt the urge to give this woman money. In that moment I realized the tricks that apartheid plays on one, for the everyday travails that afflict Africans are accepted as a matter of course, while my heart immediately went out to this bedraggled white woman. In South Africa, to be poor and black was normal, to be poor and white was a tragedy.
A few years and several hundred pages later, he has the corollary experience while taking a clandestine flight in Ethiopia.As I was boarding the plane I saw that the pilot was black. I had never seen a black pilot before, and the instant I did I had to quell my panic. How could a black man fly a plane? But a moment later I caught myself: I had fallen into the apartheid mind-set, thinking Africans were inferior and that flying was a white man's job.
If the leaders of the resistance movement can react like this – How could a black man fly a plane?
– the reactions of less committed or thoughtful South Africans can readily be imagined, and you begin to get a sense of the sheer scale of the problem which faced the ANC and other activists. A problem which has not entirely gone away.
These are the well-chosen memories of someone interested in their own thoughts and responses, and who had the time – so much of it – to examine his life and sift out the experiences that counted. Everywhere in the book, there is this sense of a man who has thought long and hard about the choices he made, and can explain them simply and directly.
Not all of them are necessarily easy to sympathise with, or at least they perhaps shouldn't be. Let's be clear: Mandela is not Ghandi. We should remember (and he is admirably open about it) that Amnesty International always declined to work on Mandela's behalf because he refused to renounce violence as a valid tool in the fight against apartheid. He was the first head of the ANC's militant wing, the MK, and involved in paramilitary training; he drew up plans for action that ran from sabotage to guerrilla warfare. At one point, he describes his 1950s self as ‘a young man who attempted to make up for his ignorance with militancy’ – but actually, that militancy never goes away, it just becomes more grounded in political and moral justifications. Mandela's ethical sensibility is always there; but ethics are not paramount.For me, non-violence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.
Effective weapons were considered to include explosives, as demonstrated for example in the Church Street bombing of 1983 which killed 19 people and wounded over 200, including many civilians. Mandela mentions it in passing, and has the following to say.The killing of civilians was a tragic accident, and I felt a profound horror at the death toll. But disturbed as I was by these casualties, I knew that such accidents were the inevitable consequence of the decision to embark on a military struggle. Human fallibility is always a part of war, and the price of it is always high. It was precisely because we knew that such incidents would occur that our decision to take up arms had been so grave and reluctant. But as Oliver said at the time of the bombing, the armed struggle was imposed upon us by the violence of the apartheid regime.
We are on dangerous ground here. Can we put a number on how many civilian deaths are considered a reasonable price to pay for ending apartheid? At the same time, though, who on earth am I to question his decisions and moral code – I who have never experienced a fraction of the abuse and discrimination which was his daily life, and who am never likely to have to make the impossible choices that were so common under apartheid?
All I can say is Mandela doesn't shy away from it. I may not always be comfortable about it, but I felt a deep respect for his willingness to stand behind his actions and explain them as best he can.
Ultimately, Mandela was saved from being a truly ambiguous figure by the simple fact that he was arrested and imprisoned before he could be directly involved in any violence himself; for him, it's all theoretical, and, locked away behind bars, he could be viewed more simply as an innocent martyr to a just cause. And indeed, it's in his response to the years of incarceration that the greatness of Mandela's character comes through. Twenty-seven years in jail would be enough to make any man bitter; but he is the opposite of bitter. Time and again he shows himself willing to listen to and work with those who might easily be called his enemies – from dissenting black activists, through ambivalent prison warders, up to the president of South Africa.
It's his astonishing ability to do without bitterness – essentially, his capacity for forgiveness – which really makes Mandela an inspiration. Perhaps it's my naïveté, but I can't help concluding that, when international pressure got too much for South Africa's government, it was Mandela's openness in negotiations which forged the breakthrough and not the MK's sporadic attempts to meet violence with violence. That's certainly what I'll take away from this excellent and fascinating memoir: that, and a delight in his unshakable belief that no matter how degrading the conditions, or how long the imprisonment, no one had the power to damage who he was on the inside:Prison and the authorities conspire to rob each man of his dignity. In and of itself, that assured that I would survive, for any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose because I will not part with it at any price or under any pressure.