Nelson Mandela was strolling by himself during a private trip to the Bahamas. A couple approached him in recognition: “Aren’t you Nelson Mandela?” The South African legend demurred: “I’m often confused with the chap.” The man didn’t buy it and told his wife: “It’s Nelson Mandela!” The wife squinted: “Yeah! Er, what is he famous for, again?” The man was stumped and turned to Mandela: “What ARE you famous for?”
That anecdote opens Martin Meredith’s “Mandela” (I’m reading the expanded 2010 version.) At the time the book was written, Mandela’s face was globally recognizable; the identity behind it was a lot more nebulous at the popular level, guaranteed to create confusion during one of Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” interviews: (“He, uh, was nice and fought racism, right? Related to Morgan Freeman?”)
That’s the fate of icons, of course, one he shares with the flock of meme-ready faces that defined last century:
(Gandhi: “Skinny, good, gave peace a chance?)
(Hitler: “Charlie Chaplin mustache, evil, hated Jews?”)
(Che Guevara: “Latin or something, debatable alignment, looks good on shirts?”)
Upon Mandela’s death in December 5, 2013, the apotheosis reached ridiculous levels. Social media was covered with Mandela “quotes” that sprang like so many pestilent daisies from his grave, everything from:
“All you need is love”-Nelson Mandela
“One does not simply walk into Johannesburg”- Nelson Mandela
“Everything happens for a reason”- Nelson Mandela
As though Mandela had led a yoga cult and not a political battle! And worse, as though the West had always supported the ANC and their efforts to overthrow the South African government! How did we forget that it was the CIA that worked toward Mandela’s arrest and imprisonment? How did we forget that Margaret Thatcher called him a terrorist? How did we forget that our government listed this beaming saint on a watch list until he was well into senectitude?
But apparently now America (and Twitter and Facebook) love him! Always have! Here the “white” in “white-washing” takes on a doubly sinister connotation.
Equally tacky were the reactionaries who, under the pretext of countering the beatification process, couldn’t wait to crap on Mandela’s grave. (Funerals are NOT a classy time to point out how so-and-so wasn’t all that.)
Martin Meredith’s “Mandela”is perfectly in the middle. It’s a book that admires without fawning and criticizes without insulting. Here is Mandela, courageous and stubborn, intelligent and mistake-prone, patient and violent; here his capacity for forgiveness (the one trait of his that is almost unparalleled in
African WORLD politics) is tempered by his tendency to turn a blind-eye to the misdoings of his wife Winnie and other associates; here his feel for “the common man” is in conflict with his own personal stand-off-ishness. Here, in short, he gets to be human.
Of course, if you prefer devotional platitudes, then you’ll enjoy U2 lyrics, in which case here’s “Ordinary Love,” yet another inspiring U2 anthem from the soundtrack to the Mandela movie, ‘The Long Walk to Freedom,” starring Idris Elba as Mandela.
RATING: GOOD ENOUGH. If you want a Mandela biography, this can’t disappoint.
Now here is a quote:
“For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity? A man for all seasons.” – Robert Whittington, 1520