Mandela: The Authorized Biography

September 3, 2019 - Comment

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

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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.British journalist Anthony Sampson first met Nelson Mandela in 1951, when Sampson was editing a black magazine in Johannesburg, and his biography of the leader benefits greatly from his long familiarity with South Africa and his access to the 81-year-old statesman’s unpublished letters and documents. These are particularly helpful in chronicling Mandela’s political and spiritual odyssey during 27 years in prison, when the fiery anti-apartheid militant condemned to life imprisonment in 1964 evolved into a dignified, authoritative leader convinced that “reconciliation would be essential to survival.” The roots of this stance lie deep in African history; Sampson’s excellent chapters on Mandela’s rural youth remind readers that he was the aristocratic scion of a royal family who early imbibed the tribal tradition of ubuntu (mutual responsibility and compassion) and the local king’s emphasis on ruling by consensus. South Africa’s relatively peaceful transition to multiracial democracy owes much to Mandela’s ability to voice these concepts in contemporary terms. And Sampson’s detailed explication of the ins and outs of revolutionary politics over five decades–though sometimes heavy going for the general reader–vividly reveals how his subject achieved the political and moral maturity that made his 1994 election as the nation’s first black president both inevitable and exhilarating. –Wendy Smith

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