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The best books on Nelson Mandela and South Africa

recommended by John Carlin

Playing the Enemy by John Carlin

Playing the Enemy
by John Carlin


Nelson Mandela was a most unusual and unusually astute leader, says journalist and author of Playing the Enemy, John Carlin. He chooses the best books to understand Nelson Mandela, who used forgiveness as a political tool, and South Africa, the country he brought peacefully out of apartheid.

Playing the Enemy by John Carlin

Playing the Enemy
by John Carlin

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Before we get to the wonderful selection of books you’ve chosen to understand Nelson Mandela and South Africa: you’ve ended up having a professional interest in South Africa as a writer and journalist for more than 20 years. Can you tell us more about how that happened?

I’ve been a journalist for 30 years now. I’ve mainly been a foreign correspondent. I’ve been based in half a dozen places and I think I’ve actually worked as a journalist in about 50 countries. South Africa is the one that left by far the deepest imprint on me. I was there at an extraordinary time, during the transition from apartheid to democracy. I arrived in 1989 as a correspondent for The Independent in London, which meant that I caught the last year of full-on, hard apartheid. Then after that there was Mandela’s release and the very painful birth pangs of the new nation, leading to the elections of 1994.

It was a period of immense drama and continual doubt as to whether the country was going to go down the road to war or to peace. You had this extraordinary character of Nelson Mandela centre stage, and as a journalist I had the privilege of watching him from front row seats and at times actually talking to him one-on-one. There was an element of happy ending, which is so unusual in life generally and in particular for a journalist covering a particular story as a correspondent. I’ve had a lot of adventures in many different parts of the world and I’ve been moved by lots of people and places, but none like South Africa.

How well did you get to know Nelson Mandela? What was he like?

I consider it to be one of the great privileges of my life to have got to know Mandela about as well as a journalist could reasonably hope to. I interviewed him one-on-one probably half a dozen times and in addition to that I had lots of small chats in and around public events and been at dinners with him. He just stands above every other political person I’ve encountered by some distance. It’s uncanny that every single person that I know who has spent time in Mandela’s presence shares my sense of admiration, bordering upon awe, for him.

Has the post-apartheid era failed to deliver for most South Africans or is there a tendency to focus too much on the failings of African National Congress rule?

The simple fact that you don’t really hear about South Africa in the international news gives you a clue that things are going reasonably well. Had it not been for the football World Cup in 2010, South Africa would have almost disappeared entirely from the international news map. When I was living in South Africa in the early 1990s, the possibility of a racial bloodbath was very much on the cards. The fact is that we haven’t come remotely close to that. South Africa remains today an impressive democracy with free and fair elections, changes of leaders, a functioning judiciary and an extremely, almost outrageously, outspoken free press. These are the big picture things that are great. You do have other things, such as corruption, crime and inefficiency, but I choose to see the glass half full. Other people choose to see it half empty.

The first book you recommend for understanding Nelson Mandela and South Africa is The Washing of the Spears, a historical account of the rise and fall of the Zulu nation. Can you tell us more about it?

This book has really stayed with me, and one thing I like about it is there is a continual undercurrent of deep respect, if not admiration, for the Zulu nation. The narrative has something of the rattling good yarn about it, while at the same time being extremely meticulously researched and scholarly at its core, but there is a lightness of touch in the tone and there are occasional wry asides. You put it all together and it adds up to a very satisfying and rich cocktail.

Can you tell us a little more about the history of the Zulu nation?

Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Zulu people imposed themselves as the dominant tribe in southern Africa through being extraordinarily ruthless and disciplined in war. They were the Romans of southern Africa. It was an environment of extraordinary cruelty and barbarity, and there was an awful lot of witchcraft. In the first part of the book this pre-colonial Zulu world is conjured up. On reading it you have a keener understanding as to why the Zulus have been so attracted to Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. You have the elements of treachery, wizardry, bloodthirstiness, scheming and at the same time the powerful ritual, kings and hierarchies. That Macbeth-type world conveys something of what the Zulu nation was like before the arrival of the Europeans. That is conveyed richly, and often harrowingly, in the book.

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Then there is the real drama, which is the arrival of the European settlers and the inevitable clash between the two. It’s told in a richly anecdotal way, but there is also an awful lot of historical material that the author draws on. The whole thing reaches its climax with the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. The first great battle between the British Redcoats and the Zulu impis, or battalions, was an appalling defeat for the British at Isandhlwana. It was one of the very few times in the 19th century that British imperial forces were crushed. Immediately after that there was the famous Battle of Rorke’s Drift, immortalised in the movie Zulu starring Michael Caine. In the end, the Zulu nation is defeated by the British at the Battle of Ulundi and after that begins a period of relative ignominy.

The Zulus are still the largest ethnic group in South Africa aren’t they?

They are, but only marginally bigger than Mandela’s group, the Xhosa. The Zulus are definitely the mythical group, the mythical tribe of South Africa and regarded as such by everybody else. They are certainly perceived as the warriors. King Shaka, the founder of the Zulu nation, is the Homeric Achilles-type figure who resounds through history.

From the mid-1970s, the Zulus have ostensibly been represented politically by the Inkatha Freedom Party led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, which in the 1980s and early 1990s aligned itself to a certain extent with the apartheid government against the ANC. How powerful a political force are they now?

You’ve touched upon a subject that stirs me and moves me deeply. If there’s one thing that I wrote about with more passion than probably any other when I was in South Africa it was Inkatha. Inkatha was a conservative, right-wing Zulu political organisation and – in one of the most shocking things I have seen in my travels anywhere – they aligned with the forces of reaction in South Africa. They were basically fighting and killing in order to stop the transition to democracy and yet they were black. It almost beggars belief. I consider the leader of Inkatha, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to be a monster. But one should bear in mind that they did not represent the entirety of the Zulu nation – one can’t be so lacking in respect to imagine they were all mindless monoliths. Actually, half the Zulus were supporting Mandela’s ANC, and what you’d get in those days were the rural Zulus siding with Inkatha and the urban Zulus tending to support the ANC.

Increasingly, the sense of the Zulus being a separate people unto themselves has been dissipated with time. The sense of Zulu pride still exists, yet one of the great things about the ANC is how they’ve managed to merge and mix all races and tribes in there. The former president, Jacob Zuma, is a Zulu. But he’s surrounded by people from all the other tribes. The reactionary Inkatha group is fast disappearing from the scene.

Your second book for understanding Nelson Mandela and South Africa is Move Your Shadow, by the Pulitzer prize-winning author and New York Times journalist Joseph Lelyveld. One reviewer in 1985 said this book “provides the kind of authentic evidence of the ordeals of black life that few white South Africans discover”. Would you agree?

That’s certainly one important point to make. I think Move Your Shadow was actually the first book on South Africa that I ever read. I moved to the country in 1989 as a correspondent from Central America, where I had spent the previous six years. I really knew very little about South Africa. It wasn’t a place I had any prior interest in but the foreign editor of The Independent, in his wisdom, decided I should go there. Everybody told me that Move Your Shadow was the current book I had to read. So I read it, and it left a lasting impression on me.

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To pick up on what you said about that review, what Lelyveld did that was most striking is that he really immersed himself in black culture and black society. He would go and spend time living in people’s huts in the countryside or in squatter settlements. He would travel vast distances across the country in buses – in fact, I think it was illegal for white people to travel on those buses. There’s that line from King Lear – “expose thyself to feel what wretches feel” – and that’s what Lelyveld did, with extraordinary integrity and courage. He really conveyed the ignominy of life for black people under apartheid but at the same time salvaged from that the tremendous courage and nobility, and indeed good humour, that people maintained, despite being submitted to what Mandela called the “moral genocide” of apartheid.

As you say, the book tells of the hardships of the black majority under apartheid. But it also shows how these hardships were the consequence of meticulous planning by the government.

That’s right. He does a good job at conveying the bureaucratic fastidiousness and overarching madness of the whole apartheid exercise. It was somewhat reminiscent of what the Nazis did. The Nazis had a tremendously efficient bureaucracy that organised the whole Final Solution to the so-called “Jewish problem”. It was a similar bureaucratic mindset and insanity that led to the grand apartheid idea of separateness, and this is what Lelyveld looks at in his book. In particular, he examines the ghastly phenomenon of forced removals, where it was decided by bureaucrats that, for example, 5,000 people living in an area of Johannesburg, where they had been living for the past 50 years, had to return to their ancestral lands. So, in the middle of the night a whole lot of police come along in trucks and knock down their houses, tell them to pick up as many belongings as they can, put them in lorries, drive them overnight for seven hours, dump them in the middle of the veldt somewhere and say: “Right, this is now your home.” And this was happening systematically. Like I say, there was something of the spirit of the Nazi Final Solution about it, though obviously with nothing like the same degree of horror or annihilation.

Lelyveld also gets into the madness behind apartheid, especially the Biblical justification that apartheid’s deeply Christian masters sought to find in what they were doing. They would look up the Old Testament and find that – as they saw it – there were actually separate heavens for black people and white people. So if there were separate heavens, according to a particular reading of the Old Testament, therefore it made perfect sense, indeed it was morally incumbent upon them, to have separateness on earth too. So in Move Your Shadow you get both the sense of the macro-madness of apartheid with a deeply close-up view of what it was like to live as a black person under apartheid. I think probably nothing like it has been written before or since.

Your third book for understanding Nelson Mandela and South Africa is Age of Iron, a novel. Please tell us more.

The author is JM Coetzee, the Nobel prize-winning author and, in my view, one of the top five living writers in the English language. Age of Iron is quite a short book – you could probably read it in a couple of hours. It’s set in mid-1980s South Africa, a time of tremendous political ferment. Mandela was imprisoned in 1964 and what followed for the next 10 years was a grave-like quiet of resignation by black people. In 1976 the first simmerings of rebellion occur and by the mid-1980s you had clashes daily in practically every township all around the country. You had the black political movement in full-on insurrectionary mode. It’s against that background that the novel is set. But Coetzee doesn’t go out and give you vivid descriptions, he’s never overtly political, he’s concerned much more with conveying a moral atmosphere.

He tells the story through the first-person voice of an older woman, Mrs Curren, who’s dying of cancer. The disease gives her this sharper focus on life and she feels with extremeness and horror the age in which she’s living. She feels the awfulness of apartheid and she conveys a tremendous sense of shame and disgrace, and that’s what Coetzee talks about. There are lots of powerful lines and powerful observations, but he does so in that extremely pithy, lean Coetzee style. There’s no fat in Coetzee’s books whatsoever – you just have this sense of there being bone all the way through. There’s one particular line when she’s reflecting and she says: “The times call for heroism; being good is not enough.” She laments the fact that just being a good person at that time in South Africa is not enough. The attitude towards these young blacks who, off-stage, are giving up their lives and showing extraordinary courage, combines on the one hand a very Coetzee sense of life’s futility and complexity, but at the same time underlying that is a real admiration. It’s very, very layered. But what really shines through is a sense of disgust with the people who have invented this apartheid system, which he conveys as a sort of disease, a contagion. Indeed, the woman’s cancer is itself a metaphor for this disease of apartheid.

Do you have any thoughts on Coetzee himself? He has a reputation for being rather intense and humourless.

It’s funny you should say that. My sense of him is of a person who makes no effort whatsoever to be liked. Most of us, in a cowardly and impish kind of way, do aspire to be liked. He doesn’t seem to give a damn about that. There’s just something sort of grim and joyless about him. I’ve known a number of people who’ve known him and he’s certainly not “Mr Personality”.

This is the only novel you have chosen. Is the literary scene thriving in post-apartheid South Africa?

I’ve been told that there are some interesting young black writers emerging who are telling the stories of their lives, the stories that were previously told by white people. Going back to Joseph Lelyved’s Move Your Shadow, the point about him was that he really got under the skin of black life in South Africa. What I’m hearing is that increasingly the stories are now being told by articulate, eloquent young black South Africans themselves.

But I do wonder whether maybe the golden age of South African writing might be in abeyance at the moment. With writers such as Coetzee and maybe Nadine Gordimer and André Brink, the ones who really had an international impact, I wonder whether you needed to have that atmosphere of conflict in order to generate the powerful drama that makes for a successful novel globally. Now there is nothing like that powerful moral battle going on in South Africa any more. It’s no longer a parable for the struggle between good and evil. It doesn’t have that moral force. My suspicion would be that we are going to go through a fallow period before we return to the greats, the Coetzees and the Gordimers and so on.

When it comes to the book you’ve selected about Nelson Mandela, why have you chosen Anthony Sampson’s biography of Mandela and not Mandela’s own autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom?

I was very torn, and I feel very guilty and indeed treasonous towards Mandela for not choosing his autobiography. I guess that if I have to go to a desert island and take one Mandela book with me I think it would be Anthony Sampson’s one. It covers all of the same chronological and biographical ground as Mandela’s autobiography but what it does is add Anthony Sampson’s eye. He knew Mandela very well when he was a young man during the 1950s and they remained good friends until Anthony Sampson’s death four or five years ago. So he has the credibility of knowing Mandela as well as any biographer could be expected to get to know him. But, at the same time, he was able to reflect on Mandela. And the thing about Mandela is that he’s not a man to reflect upon himself. Mandela is an actor on stage. He’s a performer. He’s a man of action. He’s not someone who pauses and reflects – at least he’s not someone who’s going to reflect publicly in a book. And so in order to analyse and draw reference from Mandela, to stand back and think about him, I think you get more guidance, very authoritative guidance, from Anthony Sampson’s book.

What sort of picture does the book paint of Nelson Mandela?

At least a third of the book, if not more, takes place during Mandela’s 27 years in prison. Mandela in his autobiography will tell you about encounters and clashes he had with the prison warders and with other prisoners, but what Sampson does is put it into the context of his life. He explains the very important degree to which prison was a laboratory or school for Mandela, in which he quite consciously prepared for what he knew would be the day when he would have to sit down and negotiate the transition to democracy and try to persuade the white government to cede power rather than to do so by force of arms. That was the realisation he reached in prison, and in his relations with his jailers and the heads of the prison he was continually learning and making notes about all the aspects of the Afrikaner personality. He learned about their history; he read their books; he learned their language. He prepared himself in prison for the great political game that lay ahead. Sampson explains that very well.

On another level, what Sampson’s book does is demythologise Mandela. It talks about his private life and his first wife, whom he left for Winnie Mandela. It talks about his extraordinary passion for Winnie Mandela and his evolving, appalling disappointment, as he understood that Winnie had really been corrupted over the years by, no doubt, the very unpleasant experiences she herself had suffered at the hands of the security forces. He considers Mandela’s pain there. He also talks about his estrangement from his family, who resented in many cases the fact that he was dedicating so much of his life to the nation – to the children of the nation – and not so much taking care of his own biological children. He examines that in a way that Mandela is simply incapable of doing. There’s a great line about Mandela that Sampson quotes in the book: “He combines an extreme heartiness with an impenetrable reserve.” I think that captures Mandela very well and it tells you why he would have a problem in an autobiography of going beyond a certain surface telling of the story.

There are two things that really strike me about Mandela, looking at him from the outside. First is his extraordinary self-control, and the other is his capacity for forgiveness of his political enemies.

He has been known to have flashes of anger, certainly in meetings of the ANC leadership. There were certainly times at press conferences when, if a journalist were to ask a question that betrayed a certain foolishness or lack of information, he would snap at them. He did not suffer fools gladly.

The point about forgiveness is very important. Sampson addresses this in his book and I myself have written a lot about this. Essentially, what Sampson does is offer a corrective to the notion that Mandela just offers forgiveness for forgiveness’s sake, and is driven above all by a Gandhi-esque or Christ-like moral vision of life. The thing about Mandela that is absolutely critical to understand is this: He is over and above all else a political leader. He’s a political leader with a very clear sense of what his objective is. In prison he understood that force of arms, that revenge, that throwing the whites into the sea, was not going to be the way he was going to achieve his life’s goal of installing democracy, stability and peace in South Africa. Therefore, what I’m saying, and Sampson says this too, is that forgiveness became in Mandela’s hands a political tool. It became a key instrument to achieving a political objective. Happily, of course, forgiveness was something that meshed wonderfully with his own nature. He’s a person who’s generous by nature. But let’s not forget he was the man who founded the armed wing of the ANC in 1961, and had Mandela emerged from prison and judged that the most effective and swiftest way to achieve the liberation of his people was through force of arms and revenge, he would have gone for it. But he had it very clear in his mind that forgiveness was the tool to achieve his ends.

Let’s move to post-apartheid South Africa now and to your final book, After Mandela, which is written by the journalist Alec Russell. Why have you chosen it?

The 1980s and up until the elections in 1994 was in a sense the heroic age, and one that will probably resound through South African history. Quite a lot of books have been written about that period. Fewer books have been written about the post-apartheid period. It’s a period that is much more morally complex. Before, it was literally black and white. It was humanity’s great parable – nobody had any doubt about who was good and who was evil and who we should all be supporting. Now everything has become murkier and more complex, but at the same time no less fascinating.

As Alec Russell writes from the very beginning, Mandela was always going to be a hell of an act to follow. And, regrettably, the person who took over from Mandela as president [in 1999], Thabo Mbeki, failed pretty abysmally. He was not Mandela’s first choice, which in turn imbued Mbeki with a certain measure of resentment towards Mandela. Mbeki was, in many ways, the polar opposite of Mandela. Mandela is a big, generous man, confident of his authority, at one with himself, comfortable in his own skin. Mbeki is the opposite of all that. Quite a lot of the divisions he fostered in society once he became president were very much a response to that anti-Mandela personality of Mbeki. Alec Russell describes that post-Mandela period of disillusionment with rich anecdote, with very intelligent and consistently measured analysis. Russell writes in a very readable, easy style. He’s the opposite of pretentious. He’s lucid and he really gives you a sense of the post-Mandela period under Mbeki before moving on to his successor Jacob Zuma, and how corruption has crept in, and the worry that the ANC will forget its moral roots.

He addresses the issue of the “Zanufication” of the ANC, doesn’t he – the fear that it might come to resemble Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF in next door Zimbabwe?

The concern is that they are going to become a party that just wants to stay in power for power’s sake. And that has actually been my own concern pretty much from the time they came to power. But, in terms of drawing an analogy with Zanu-PF, Alec Russell says in the book pretty much what I think: That to make an analogy between South Africa and Zimbabwe is both simplistic and insulting. There is an enormous difference between Zimbabwe and South Africa as societies and as political bodies. Certainly, at this stage, to imagine and to say that South Africa is going to go the way of Zimbabwe is way off the mark. Who knows what could be the case in 50 years’ time, but the fact is that today South Africa is a country with powerful institutions, a very powerful judiciary and a fundamental respect for the rule of law. There is also a very outspoken free press and there are powerful trade unions. Civil society is strong and carries with it a very fresh and vivid memory of what it was that the ANC fought for. I think one of the more encouraging things that Alec Russell describes in the book is the ANC meeting at which Thabo Mbeki was ousted. And as Russell describes it, a very large part of the impetus behind the move to oust him was that South Africa shouldn’t become like Zimbabwe. “No Zimbabwe here” was one of the slogans in the hall. They did not want a repetition of what had happened in Zimbabwe, of one leader entrenching himself in power for ever. That democratic impulse remains strong in South Africa.

So, as you said earlier, the glass is half full in South Africa, not half empty.

I certainly think that. As I said before, South Africa is not in the news. It’s not a country where you are seeing the slightest glimmer of a notion of political conflict, of civil war. And having lived in South Africa in the early 1990s, having seen what the potential there was for an appalling bloodbath, I never cease to be amazed that South Africa today remains a solid and stable democracy.

March 20, 2012

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John Carlin

John Carlin

John Carlin is a journalist and author. His book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, about former South African president Nelson Mandela, is the basis for the 2009 film Invictus.

John Carlin

John Carlin

John Carlin is a journalist and author. His book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, about former South African president Nelson Mandela, is the basis for the 2009 film Invictus.