Mandela: a critical life by Tom Lodge
|Reviewed By:||Patrick Chabal|
|Reviewed in:||International Affairs|
|Date accepted online:||02/11/2007|
|Published in print:||Volume 83, Issue 04, Pages 791-833|
Book reviews: Sub-Saharan Africa
The mere mention of Nelson Mandela evokes notions of someone who is already a legend, not to say a saint. In some real sense, therefore, he is already for many well beyond the purview of a biography: he has become a myth. But Mandela is still very much alive and since there are already a number of biographies, as well as a massive autobiography, is this the right time for another account of his life? Is there really new information, which would in some important way change our perception of the politician or the person? Is it not too early to assess what impact his politics may have had on a country that is still searching for its place in an African continent racked by poverty and violence?
The first merit of Lodge's book is to make plain how useful, not to say necessary, is a sober political biography of Mandela. Of course, our view of the South African politician is bound to evolve, perhaps radically, in the next few decades, when it becomes clearer how consequential his legacy has been. Nevertheless, the author has laid down an interpretation of the man, both public and private, that is likely to endure. Future historians will be measured against Lodge's biography for two important reasons. The first is that this book is firmly set within the country's historical and political context, on which Lodge is an expert: Mandela is no
Although Lodge's book unfolds in conventional chronological fashion, the strength of the biography lies in the emphasis placed on some key moments in Mandela's personal and political life. Quite rightly in my view, the author gives considerable importance to the circumstances of Mandela's upbringing at court, circumstances which help to explain some of the key aspects of his personality. Detached at an early age from his immediate family, Mandela became self-sufficient and learned how to withstand social and personal pressure. Introduced as a child to chiefly politics, he assimilated the lessons of 'traditional' politics and became imbued with the qualities of what Lodge calls patrician leadership. Although Mandela never was bound by 'traditional' politics (in the sense in which it might be said that Buthelezi was) it is impossible to make sense of his political acumen, both within the ANC and in his negotiations with the apartheid government, without taking into account these all-important aspects of his early political education.
The author then focuses attention on the two most critical questions regarding Mandela's position as an ANC leader: his influence on party policy during the apartheid period
On the second, the author makes clear that Mandela was prepared to take enormous risks in order to achieve his aim. In effect, Mandela was walking a very tight rope. He had to convince the regime they should negotiate on
Mandela, like Gandhi, is a historical figure who invites simplistic or hagiographic treatment. It is not the least merit of this book to show us that extraordinary personal qualities are only historically relevant if they translate into shrewd political action. Lodge's biography is convincing because it accounts for a man who, like Gandhi, was above all a practical politician, endowed with an uncannily accurate understanding of how to exploit his opponent's weaknesses. Both men were master tacticians of the transition to freedom.