Home | About Us | News Feeds RSS | Subscribe | Support Us | User Login | Search

Southern Africa Report Archive

Michael Valpy provides one of two reviews of Nelson Mandela's autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom".

vol 11 no 2

Review: Reviewing Mandela's autobiography: I - Michael Valpy: * (one star)
Michael Valpy

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 2, January 1996
Page 29

I. MICHAEL VALPY: * (one star)


Michael Valpy, columnist for Toronto's Globe and Mail was the Globe's Africa and Middle East Bureau Chief from 1984 to 1988.

Long Walk to Freedom. The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Little Brown & Co., Boston, New York, Toronto, London, 1994. 558 pages.

Reading this enjoyable book left me with the impression that two Nelson Mandelas wrote it. There is the Mandela who experienced the life and events recorded in its pages and, always looking over his shoulder, there is the second Mandela - the shrewd pragmatist with a careful political eye to the portrait being presented. Do we have true autobiography as a result, a connected narrative of the author's life with stress laid on introspection? Or do we have well-crafted mythology, the selling of the Father of the Nation, the Trustworthy Helmsman, the Reliable President who merits the confidence of his uneasy, troubled people and the domestic business community and international investors? I think the latter.

This is no revolutionary. This is a man born of the ruling class, raised to be counsellor to a king, exposed from adolescence to the science of governing, to the mechanics of addressing the innate conflicts of humanity. This is no zealot, no burning reformer of the order of things. Never, he explains at length, was he a Marxist; he was interested in dialectical materialism only as a way of explaining history. Never was he a Communist; the Communist friends he made served mainly the purpose of introducing him to a wider society which did not pay attention to racism. Never as he rode the tiger's back was he in danger of winding up inside the tiger's tummy: the alliance of the African National Congress with the South African Communist Party he likens to the Allies' alliance with Stalin against Hitler and he writes: "Who is to say we were not using them?"

It is undoubtedly necessary to say all this. This is no wounded, angry, vengeful, dysfunctional ego. Mandela is an imminently sane, well-grounded human being. He understands the motivations of his oppressors. He writes of the friendships he made with some of his jailers and the birthday remembrances he sent to their children. He knows the psyches of his political opponents - he knows that to undermine them would undermine the stability of the country. He displays spleen only toward the Pan African Congress. He is discrete . . . about Winnie, and, for the most part, about F.W. de Klerk. And, all in all, the reader is not going to feel satisfied.

As I turned the last of this book's 558 pages, I did not feel that I had seen inside one of the century's outstanding human beings. Rather I feel I have read something that could have been put out by the publishers of Boys Own Annual under the series rubric "Great and Courageous Leaders of Our Times." There is a meal here, but it never transcends comfort food. There is no revelation. We all know the story of the struggle against apartheid. We all know about the dumb-brute racism of apartheid's apparatchiks, the demeaning, stupid and violent acts of its bureaucrats, its police, its jailers. We know about the Rivonia treason trial. We all have read accounts of the political prisoners on Robben Island. We all know about the major decisions Mandela made to accept the tactic of the violent struggle for the ANC while he was still espousing non-violence, to begin negotiations with the apartheid government without consulting or even informing his ANC colleagues. We all know the general dimensions of his personality - courtly, dignified, intelligent, committed, uncompromising, a tower of strength and civility before, during and after his 27 years of imprisonment, a supremely competent, skilled, sensitive, utilitarian politician. And there you have it. That is his book, that is what it says.

Maybe this story is too well known. There are more clothes to Mandela's life than we have had before. But there are no surprises. No jagged edges. And, no, not much introspection. "I am not and never have been," says Mandela, "a man who finds it easy to talk about his feelings in public." He remains masked. What is disappointing about Long Walk to Freedom is that Mandela - beyond an unconsciously moving revelation of his relationship to his father and confessing to being a lousy husband and father who methodically subordinated personal relationships to his political mission - rarely reveals the human elements of himself that lets the reader meet and comprehend him.

Which is not to say, "Don't bother reading it." This is an enjoyable book. It is written by a man who has both a superb eye and a superb memory. The voice is authentic Mandela, certainly what I imagine Mandela's voice to be: ironic, wise. (He says of newspapers that what he finds useful about them is not the information they present but the biases of those who write for them.) But autobiography? Better to say it is a travelogue, a superb travelogue, a wide-angle camera panning with exquisite detail and colour from the royal court of Thembuland to the intellectual vibrancy and frenetic events of Second World War-era Johannesburg and Sophiatown and the gathering anti-apartheid struggle to the awfulness of, and triumph over, 27 years of imprisonment.

The book is in four sections: Mandela's childhood and youth, his political activism, his imprisonment - which takes up more than 200 pages - and his life after prison. The fourth section is the least interesting; Mandela is too careful and too banal in what he writes. He also could have done with better editing: in his account of his visit to Canada, Inuit is misspelled and Goose Bay is described as "a remote place above the Arctic Circle."

The first section I like by far the most. It deals with the part of Mandela's life I knew nothing about. It suggests what shaped the man. And, alas, there's too little of it. In the lovely narrative of the book's first part - titled "A Country Childhood" - Mandela writes of his exploration of who his father was. He makes his father into his mythological hero. He writes of becoming infused with pride for Xhosa and Thembu culture, of acquiring his father's devotion to history.

Thembuland formed part of the Xhosa nation in what is now Transkei. Mandela was born the son of a Thembu chief, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, who was both an adviser to kings and a king-maker, sometimes referred to as the prime minister of Thembuland. He accompanied the Thembu kings on their travels through their domain and was with them during meetings with important government officials. He also was the acknowledged custodian of Xhosa history. He had a tuft of white hair just above his forehead and, as a boy, Mandela would take white ash and rub it into his hair in imitation of him. When he refused to acknowledge a summons to appear before a local colonial official, he was summarily stripped of his title and wealth - deprived of most of his land and cattle and the revenue that came with them. He had four wives, the third of whom was Mandela's mother. He died in poverty on the dirt floor of Mandela's mother's hut when Mandela was nine.

Soon after his father's death, the acting regent of the Thembu people, Chief Jongintaba Dalinddyebo, made young Mandela his ward. Mandela describes leaving his village of Qunu to walk with his mother to the royal residence at Mqhekezweni, provisional capital of Thembuland. The window he opens on a sad little boy departing forever from his childhood home is moving. "We travelled by foot and in silence until the sun was sinking slowly toward the horizon. But the silence of the heart between mother and child is not a lonely one. My mother and I never talked very much, but we did not need to. I never doubted her love or questioned her support." (He was in prison when she died; his jailers refused permission for him to attend her funeral.) His description of life - his formative adolescent life - at the royal residence is fascinating but too brief and, regrettably, too shallow. He writes: "The two principles that governed my life at Mqhekezweni were chieftaincy and the Church" - personified by two men: the regent and the Reverend Matyolo, pastor of Mqhekezweni's Methodist Church. We are not shown enough of either. Mandela merely tantalizes the reader with skimpy details of their personalities. We're told the Reverend Matyolo had a deep and potent voice, that his Methodism "was of the fire-and-brimstone variety, seasoned with a bit of African animism" and that the first story Mandela heard of him was that he had chased away a dangerous ghost with only a Bible and lantern as weapons. But Mandela gives us little clue to the reverend's influence on him and, of the regent, we hear not much more (except that he was clever enough, when Mandela decided to run away to Johannesburg to escape an arranged marriage, to anticipate his ward's action and inform the train- station agent not to sell him a ticket).

The first 40,000 South African copies of Long Walk to Freedom were bought up within hours of going on sale. Subsequent shipments sold just as quickly. The picture of himself Mandela showed to his fellow citizens and the world would leave no unpleasantness with the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Thus the story of Nelson Mandela's life is set down . . . always very, very readably, often movingly. But the end-product is more high-grade entertainment than illumination.

- 30 -

Printable Version

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.

     top of page