NELSON MANDELA: A Biography. By Martin Meredith . St. Martin's: 596 pp., $29.95

Robert Kinloch Massie is the author of "Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years."

In June 1990, a few months after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela came to the United States to thank those who had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement, to raise money for the African National Congress and to exhort Washington to maintain pressure on the white South African government. As he bounced from city to city, he drew hundreds of thousands of exhilarated people to his public appearances. Struggling to explain this outpouring of enthusiasm, the editors of Time magazine commented that though Mandela was, of course, mortal, "on a more transcendent plane, where history is made and myths are forged, Mandela is a hero, a man like those described by author Joseph Campbell, who has emerged from a symbolic grave, reborn, made great, and filled with creative power."

In "Nelson Mandela," Martin Meredith takes on the demanding task of writing about a man who is about as close to a hero as we can probably get in the modern political world. In his spry account, Meredith carefully avoids adulation while tracing the course of Mandela's remarkable career from a child who tended livestock in the hills of the Eastern Cape to one of the most famous political prisoners of the 20th century and finally, in his 70s, to the first black president of a newly democratic South Africa.

A veteran reporter, Meredith crafts deft portraits of such people as Walter Sisulu, who first befriended Mandela on Mandela's arrival as a young man in Johannesburg; Percy Yutar, the state prosecutor at the trial that sent Mandela to Robben Island; and Theunis Swanepoel, the South Africa policeman who brutalized many prisoners, including Winnie Mandela. Meredith skillfully depicts Mandela's complex relationships with the close circle of white Communists who supported the African National Congress for more than four decades. He writes vividly but unsentimentally about the tribulations and betrayals that racked Mandela's family and eventually transformed Winnie Mandela from a head-strong young beauty into an alcoholic tyrant implicated in several murders.

Part of the world's interest in Mandela arises from our astonishment that someone could emerge from 10,000 days in prison with not only his dignity and sanity intact but also with the capacity to embrace without malice those who imprisoned him. Though Meredith collapses this experience into a few brief chapters, he manages to convey how truly grinding this experience must have been. From 1962 to 1990 (think of what you were doing during all those years), Mandela endured a relentless stream of capricious guards, back-breaking labor, factional strife, physical illness and corrosive loneliness. His stints in solitary confinement were among the hardest times, Mandela wrote in an early set of recollections quoted by Meredith, because it was then that "the ghosts come crowding in. They can be very sinister, very mischievous, raising a thousand doubts. . . . Was your sacrifice worth the trouble?"

An impetuous man by nature, Mandela gradually developed an almost supernatural discipline in prison that carried him through innumerable disappointments, including the deaths of his mother, one of his sons and many of his friends and allies; some through illness and old age, others through assassination. By the mid-1970s, so complete was the South African government's suppression of dissent that Mandela wondered whether he and his fellow prisoners had simply been forgotten. Then came the Soweto riots of 1976, a wave of younger and newly defiant political prisoners and the beginning of a cascade of events that marked the waning of apartheid as both concept and regime.

Because Mandela took to guarding his private thoughts more intensely as he was cast onto the largest of public stages, and because pieces of his life have already acquired mythological proportions, we should be grateful that Meredith's portrait allows us to grasp some of Mandela's inner world. At the same time, the intensity with which Meredith maintains the spotlight on Mandela as an individual creates some difficulties, because it induces him to gloss over major pieces of the larger story of South Africa's liberation.

The great challenge for any biographer is to situate the story of the subject's life into the context that affected him and over which he had sway, to locate, as it were, the hero in history. For a person as pivotal as Mandela, the task is particularly important because a failure to provide adequate context can lead, paradoxically, to an overemphasis on the heroic implications of that single life. Though Mandela is a titan of political endurance, even he, as he would be the first to admit, was only one player in an international drama that played itself out for more than 50 years.

Meredith's account includes only a handful of sentences about the Afrikaner politics that gave rise to apartheid; about the economic conditions that created, sustained and eventually undermined it; about the pivotal role of churches and unions; or about the superpower rivalries that deeply affected the National Party government's choices. The wars in Namibia and Angola, for example, in which the South African government was entangled for more than a decade, are scarcely mentioned. John Vorster's 12-year term as prime minister, which lasted from 1966 to 1978, is mentioned only once.

I raise these points with some reluctance because, for the most part, Meredith's account counteracts the tendency of modern history and biography to substitute the dramatic and complex stories of real human beings with historiographic ruminations into which facts have been inserted as convenient buttresses. In several sections in his book, however, and especially in his treatment of the period after Mandela's release, Meredith loses his otherwise sure control of the narrative and falls into a simple recitation of events.

Finally, there is the problem of Meredith's cavalier attitude toward his sources. Nearly 10 years ago, after reading an earlier book by Meredith titled "In the Name of Apartheid," I discussed it with one of South Africa's most prominent historians. He dismissed it rather casually as "popular history," by which he meant that the account was superficial and the facts unsupported. Curious about this response, I went to the book and examined it anew. I found that though it was not superficial, Meredith did seem to have made it a matter of pride to collapse his sources into a minuscule list of works he had consulted. Again, in this biography, he reduces 28 chapters and more than 550 pages of text to a mere eight pages of "Notes on Sources."

This aversion to end notes needlessly undermines the confidence of the reader and can lead to deep frustration in those who, impressed with Meredith's anecdotes, might attempt to track down their origins. Early in his account, for example, Meredith reports on the fateful words of Mandela's first white friend, a "light-hearted Communist" and attorney named Nat Bregman. At the time it took place--the 1940s--Mandela was working as an apprentice in the law firm of Bregman's uncle. In his own autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela describes this time as one in which he tried to avoid politics because he was struggling to pursue a respectable career and stay out of the trouble that had plagued him since he had arrived in Johannesburg from his home in Transkei. Nonetheless, according to Meredith, Mandela's destiny was already evident. "In the office that they shared," Meredith writes, "Nat Bregman remembered vividly the occasion when Mandela told him, 'One day, I'm going to be prime minister of South Africa.' "

The anecdote, with which Meredith ends a chapter, is stirring, like a flourish of timpani announcing impending battle. But is it true? George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree or confess to the crime, yet the story was force-fed to millions of American schoolchildren because it so effectively presaged Washington's future as the father of his country. In the case of Mandela, who could arguably claim the same title for South Africa, the literary temptation that dances before his biographers to find such examples is equally great. Yet even as Meredith provides such tantalizing stories, he is elusive about their origins. He thanks Bregman, and a host of Mandela's white compatriots, in his acknowledgments so, presumably, they have talked, but we have no way of knowing whether Meredith gathered this particular story from another book, contemporary document, oral interview or a passing comment made over cocktails at Mandela's inauguration.

In a simpler day we might have trusted that Meredith, as a former fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford, knows and upholds the rules of scholarship. In a global media culture in which innuendo so readily becomes fact, in which the line between reality and invention is often intentionally blurred, sources and standards must be far more explicit. The shortcomings in Meredith's book do not destroy it; they simply make his work less of a contribution to what promises to be a long line of scholarship on Mandela. In the end, Meredith has produced a readable account that enables us to look past the Klieg lights of heroism and ponder the more touching drama of a fallible human being whose fierce commitment to principle helped sustain and deliver him--and his country--from bondage to liberty.

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