Nelson Mandela, who emerged from twenty-six years of political imprisonment to lead South Africa out of apartheid and into democracy, is perhaps the world's most admired leader, a man whose life has been led with exemplary courage and inspired conviction.
Now Anthony Sampson, who has known Mandela since 1951 and has been a close observer of South Africa's political life for the last fifty years, has produced the first authorized biography, the most informed and comprehensive portrait to date of a man whose dazzling image has been difficult to penetrate. With unprecedented access to Mandela's private papers (including his prison memoir, long thought to have been lost), meticulous research, and hundreds of interviews--from Mandela himself to prison warders on Robben Island, from Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo to Winnie Mandela and F. W. de Klerk, and many others intimately connected to Mandela's story--Sampson has composed an enlightening and necessary story of the man behind the myth.
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September 07, 2000
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Excerpt from Mandela by Anthony Sampson
Country Boy: 1918-1934
Few parts of South Africa are more remote from city life than the Transkei, six hundred miles south of Johannesburg. It is one of the most beautiful but also one of the poorest regions of the country. The limitless vistas of rolling hills, pale green grass and round thatched huts, with herdboys and shepherds driving their flocks between them, present an almost Biblical vision of a timeless, idyllic, pastoral life. But the beauty is skin-deep: the land is desperately overpopulated, and the thin soil is so eroded that it can only sustain scattered groups of scrawny cattle or sheep and sporadic crops of maize.
It is here that Nelson Mandela was born and brought up, and here that he has built the house to which he retreats for Christmases and holidays, and where he intends to retire. It is a large red-brick bungalow with Spanish-style arches alongside the main road, the N2 from Durban to Cape Town, a few miles south of Umtata, Transkei's biggest town. It stands at the end of an avenue of cypresses, surrounded by a wall and a bushy garden which cuts it off from the open countryside. Mandela conceived the house during his last year in jail, and based its floor-plan on the warder's house in the prison compound where he was living. He chose the site, which looks over his home district of Qunu, in the belief that "a man should die near where he was born."
Mandela's actual birthplace is several miles south, in the small village of Mvezo on the banks of the winding Mbashe (Bashee) river, where his father was hereditary chief. (The family's group of huts, or kraal, is no longer there: in 1988 Mandela, then in jail, would ask a local lawyer to locate it, but he could find no trace.) Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Mvezo on 18 July 1918--at a time, he would later reflect, when the First World War was coming to an end, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia was being consolidated, and the newly-formed African National Congress sent a deputation to London to plead for the rights of black South Africans. The British Cape Colony, which included the "native reserve" of the Transkei, had been absorbed into the Union of South Africa in 1910, and three years later the Native Land Act dispossessed hundreds of thousands of black farmers, many of whom trekked to the Transkei, the only large area where Africans could own land. The Transkei has produced more black leaders than any other region of South Africa, and it was with this history that they were brought up.
Rolihlahla's father, Hendry Mandela, suffered his own dispossession. The year after his son was born the local white magistrate summoned Hendry to answer a tribesman's complaint about an ox. Hendry refused to come, and was promptly charged with insubordination and deposed from the chieftainship, losing most of his cattle, land and income. The family moved from their ancestral kraal in Mvezo to the nearby village of Qunu, where the boy Mandela would spend his next few years. Although their fortunes had suddenly declined, they kept together without too much hardship. They shared food and simple pleasures with cousins and friends, and Mandela never felt alone: in later life he would look back warmly on that collective spirit and sense of shared responsibility, before Western influences began to introduce competition and individualism.
Hendry Mandela was a strict father, with a stubbornness which his son suspects he inherited. He was illiterate, pagan and polygamous; but he was tall and dignified, darker than his son, and with no sense of inferiority toward whites. He inhabited a self-contained rural world with its own established customs and rituals. He had four wives, of whom Mandela's mother, Nosekeni Fanny, was the third. Each had her own kraal, which was more or less self-sufficient, with its own fields, livestock and vegetables. Hendry would move between the different kraals visiting his wives, who appear to have been on good terms with each other. He kept some home-brewed liquor in his hut, with a bottle of brandy in the cupboard which would last three or four months. He respected tribal customs: when a baby was born he slaughtered a goat and erected its horns in the house.
Hendry never became a Christian, but he had some Christian friends, including the Reverend Tennyson Makiwane, a scholarly community leader who was part of the elite of the Transkei (his offspring were later to be controversial members of the ANC). He was also close to the Mbekela brothers, George and Ben, who belonged to the separate tribal group called Amamfengu, or "Fingoes"; this group remained apart from the Xhosa people, and were more influenced by missionaries and Western customs, many of them becoming teachers, clergymen or policemen. The Mbekela brothers converted Mandela's mother to Methodism, after which she began wearing Western dresses instead of Xhosa garb. She had her son baptized as a Methodist, and later the brothers persuaded both parents that Mandela should go to the local mission school--the first member of the family to do so.
Mandela's sisters Mabel and Leabie would recall with pleasure the simple country life of their childhood in Qunu, revolving around the three round huts or rondavels in their mother's kraal--one for sleeping, one for cooking, one for storing food--fenced off with poles. The rondavels were made by their mother from soil molded into bricks; the simple chairs and cupboards were also made of soil, and the stove was a hole in the ground. There were no beds or tables, only mats. The roofs were made of grass held together with ropes. They lived largely on maize, which was stored in holes (izisele) in the kraals. The boys spent the day herding the cattle, and the girls and women of the family prepared the food together in one of the houses, grinding the maize between stones, cooking it in black three-legged metal pots and mixing it with sour milk. The family would all take the main meal together in the evening, sitting on the ground eating from a single dish.
Mandela's father already had three sons by other wives, but they had already left home. As a boy, he had much more freedom than his sisters. He was very close to his mother, but would often stay with another of his father's wives, with whom he felt the same security and love as with Nosekeni Fanny. Throughout his life he would always feel most at ease with women--particularly with strong women who could provide rewarding friendships, which may be linked to his childhood experience. He thrived within his extended family of cousins, stepmothers and half-brothers and -sisters (Bantu languages have no words for stepsisters or stepmothers, so he called all his father's wives his "mothers"). "I had mothers who were very supportive and regarded me as their son," he recalled. "Not as their stepson or half-son, as you would say in the culture amongst whites. They were mothers in the proper sense of the word." His happy experience as a son loved by four mothers made his childhood very secure, and he sometimes talks nostalgically about polygamy at that time, although he firmly rejects it in today's conditions: "Quite inexcusable. It shows contempt for women, and it's something I discourage totally."