The Authorized Nelson Mandela : HIGHER THAN HOPE by Fatima Meer (Harper & Row: $19.95; 427 pp.)

In "Higher Than Hope," a biography of Nelson Mandela "carefully examined, approved and authorized" by the African National Congress leader himself, Fatima Meer has organized a book that is partly a history of the ANC, partly a song of praise for the Mandela family, partly a compilation of Nelson's own writings--his letters, his eloquent self-defense in 1964, and portions of his autobiography.

These documents provide a genuine feel for the personal life and philosophy of one of this century's greatest freedom fighters and for the details and minutiae of characters at the center of political change; fortunately, they also help "Higher Than Hope" avoid the perennial problem of many air-brushed "authorized" books that too often sanitize their subjects.

A longtime opponent of apartheid herself, Meer, who was banned and jailed with Winnie Mandela, acknowledges her personal commitment to the ANC's integrationist program (as opposed to that of other groups, such as the separatist Pan-Africanist Congress), and though she sometimes portrays Nelson and Winnie in idealized terms, her account of their critical role in bringing an end to South Africa's racial oppression is thoroughly engaging, informative and moving.

More than anything else, Meer's biography of Mandela delivers the story of a man whose every waking moment has been devoted to African liberation. His great-grandfather was King Ngubengcuka, who, in the 17th Century, ruled over the 400-year-old Thembu tribe. Mandela recalls hearing "elders of the tribe telling stories about the good old days, before the arrival of the white man. . . . Then the country was our own. . . . All men were free and equal, and this was the foundation of government. . . . This is the inspiration, which, even today, inspires me and my colleagues in our political struggle."

Meer traces that struggle from 1941 when Mandela, then 23, arrived in Johannesburg to study law and immersed himself in the city's progressive community of intellectuals and activists. "We were critical of the ANC," he writes of the organization founded in 1912. "We felt it was out of touch with the masses." Therefore, he and several friends established the African Youth Congress, their own militant wing of the ANC, which by 1949 was able to take control of the parent organization and move it from an ineffective "constitutional struggle" against government oppression to Gandhi-style non-violent, passive resistance in the successful 1952 Defiance of Unjust Laws campaign.

Under Mandela's leadership, the ANC grew "from a few thousand to an estimated 100,000" by 1951. But two years later, the racist government responded with the Group Areas Act (reserving practically all urban and developed land for whites), the Bantu Education Act (aimed at giving African children an inferior education) and the Bantu Authorities Act (to control the movement of Africans); extended the pass system to include women, and passed legislation outlawing passive resistance. In 1954, the government banned Mandela from all ANC gatherings for five years.

Unable then to engage in political activities, hamstrung by the four-year treason trial and sensing that a ban on the ANC was imminent, Mandela proposed the reorganization of the ANC into cells that would "intensify participation on the grass-roots level and simultaneously transform it into an underground structure, if necessary."

Necessity arrived in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre, when police shot 69 demonstrators and wounded 180 more. The government declared a state of emergency, followed by mass arrests. The ANC was banned.

At that time, Mandela told a conference of African leaders: "All opportunities for peaceful agitation and struggle have been closed." Africans began meeting violence with violence--sometimes attacking chiefs who cooperated with the government (Winnie's own father sided with such a group, which meant "he opposed all that she and Nelson stood for").

In order to turn them from terrorism and channel their actions, Mandela went underground and helped form Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), a group separate from the ANC, created to engage in acts of sabotage against property, not people, as a way to economically cripple the white government. Umkhonto sent Mandela to numerous African nations to raise money to train its soldiers, and he received promises of support from such statesmen as Haile Selassie, Leopold Senghor, Sekou Toure and Milton Obote. However, only a few months after his return, Mandela was captured and, in 1963, sentenced to life imprisonment.

Meer helps us to understand the horror of those 27 years of hellish labor and deprivation in the Robben Island prison. "The prison is above all punitive," says Mandela, "it operates to break the human spirit. . . . The great challenge is how to resist, how not to adjust, to keep intact the knowledge of the society outside and live by its rules . . . ."

Yet, it was no less hellish for Winnie Mandela, deprived of her job at a child-welfare office by a banning order, and harassed so often by raids and relocations that her daughter Zendzi remarks: "I felt I was more or less raised by the police." For Winnie, writes Meer, "surviving without Nelson became possible only by surviving like him, and she threw herself into political activity."

When the police could not discredit Winnie with trumped-up charges of adultery, they made her serve two prison sentences for technical violations of her banning order. Unable to prove in 1969 that she had tried to revive the ANC, the government nevertheless subjected her to interrogations bordering on torture, forced her to relocate, and placed her under house arrest.

To her credit, Meer does not avoid discussing subjects sensitive to the Mandelas--Nelson's first marriage, individual dreams impossible to reconcile with their political lives, the 1988 crisis stemming from the death of a homeless boy Winnie tried to help. Her reportorial honesty and breadth deliver the Mandelas in several dimensions: as legends in the global struggle against oppression, as people who teach us how to transform personal suffering into public triumph.

"Higher Than Hope" is essential reading for everyone concerned about politics and humanity.

The Authorized Mandela

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