Knowing Mandela, by John Carlin, Atlantic Books, RRP£14.99, 160 pages

By six days, Nelson Mandela outlived a white South African politician called Colin Eglin. While the future president was made to hew limestone on Robben Island, the quantity surveyor won a seat in the apartheid parliament in 1974 for the prosperous constituency of Sea Point, which looks out on that smudge of rock amid the shimmer of Table Bay.

As a Capetonian schoolboy I licked envelopes for Eglin in the election that put the Progressive party leader among a handful able to join the doughty Helen Suzman on the opposition benches. He was to stay there for 30 years, latterly under the Democratic Alliance banner.

For me it became impossible not to see Mandela as the king across the water – or escape the impression that many of Sea Point’s notionally liberal English-speaking voters wanted him kept there. For their part, the Progs at the time advocated only a qualified franchise, their calls to free all political prisoners grew persistent only later – and, when township youth anger first erupted in 1976, Eglin was quick to back a crackdown.

John Carlin remains as fascinated with Mandela’s ability to win round the Afrikaner majority among the white population as he was in Playing the Enemy, about the new president’s unifying role during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Yet from the time he arrived as a reporter in 1989, just as Pretoria prepared to free the African National Congress leader, the speed of changes to which the Nationalists under FW de Klerk were agreeing took the breath of many white anglophones – not out of admiration but alarm. After all, it was they who had the most invested in the economy.

Their worries were in part misplaced, and in any event replaced for a while by the nation’s descent into ever bloodier conflict. While apartheid’s diehards plotted, migrant workers burst from their mining hostels at the behest of a manipulative “homeland” leadership to slay black neighbours on township streets.

The four febrile years between Mandela’s release and his inauguration are well illuminated in this “short book about a big man”. Knowing Mandela is a note-aided recollection of interviews, press conferences, speeches and the like. But it is also an attempt to get at the amalgam of characteristics and strategies that made the man what he was, his country a far better place, and the world awestruck both at what he achieved and at the manner in which he did it.

As Carlin concludes, he embodied “four qualities – integrity, respect, charisma, and empathy”. On a political level he “made pacts with plenty of devils”, cut deals and accepted compromises. “It is a lesson that the Israelis and the Palestinians have patently failed to absorb,” observes the author, who says he himself came away having learnt the simple value of being kind. Or as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it for him in a word: “Magnanimity.”

Though such noble sentiments provide an awkward backdrop against which to air niggles, a few may merit mention for a work published in the week Mandela died. Atlantic Books, responsible for the UK edition, has oddly not bothered to alter the spellings used by HarperCollins for the US. Carlin’s prose soars at times but can be clunky or overblown. The Mandela pragmatism is by turn “cold-eyed” and “hard-nosed”; his “Herculean task was to reroute the river of black anger and frustration away from revenge and toward the green pastures of reconciliation”; and (most grating of all) he is supposed to have separated family anguish from political exigencies by “a kind of self-imposed apartheid of the mind”. The significance of armed ANC activities in fuelling white fear is due more weight than it is given, as are reasons beyond “blinkered ignorance” for Mr de Klerk’s long inaction against the later forces of belligerent instability.

Still, there is much anecdotal succour for readers keen to grasp how his subject made fans of foes. One compelling account is of Carlin’s conversation with Constand Viljoen, a veteran general who became the figurehead of white resistance before entering secret talks with Mandela. It took place in a burger bar in Eglin’s constituency and brought Gen Viljoen’s assessment that the man won over all who met him by conveying a sincere appreciation of others’ differing origins – and by pouring tea.

If anything, Mandela may have identified better with the Afrikaners of the soil than with the more money-driven urban English. Yet all moved with the times. In a parliamentary session to mark Mandela’s passing, Kgalema Motlanthe, deputy president and fellow Robben Island inmate, also took a moment to mourn Eglin, who had died aged 88 having helped draft the non-racial constitution.

It came as further evidence that, while economic inequalities remain vast and Mandela’s successors are often found lacking, the inclusive Madiba legacy somehow lives on.


The writer is the FT’s obituaries editor

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