It’s unfortunate the New York Times Book Review handed the appraisal of three recent books about Nelson Mandela–including Mandela’s own new book–to J.M. Ledgard, identified as “the Africa correspondent for The Economist.”* The books are Richard Stengel’s Mandela’s Way, David Smith’s Young Mandela, and Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela.
First, there are the factual errors–at least three leap out. First, Julius Nyerere’s name is spelled incorrectly. Then Ledgard writes: “… Mandela met with the head of the apartheid intelligence service, Niel Barnard, in the 1980s. Two other Robben Island prisoners were delegated by the A.N.C. to talk with Barnard: these were the future South African presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma.”
But Thabo Mbeki never served time on Robben Island.
He left South Africa as a 19-year old in 1962 and only returned in 1990. As for Jacob Zuma, he was released from Robben Island in 1975 and also returned to South Africa in 1990. Both men–Mbeki and Zuma–did secretly negotiate with Barnard, but they did so in various locations in Europe during the mid- to late-1980s.
Second, we’re forced to swallow a graphic depiction of Mandela’s circumcision as though it reveals something about him and the three books Ledgard is reviewing, “For Mandela, the circumcision was something that linked him with his Thembu ancestors; in losing a part of his manhood, he became a man.” Ledgard claims to be highlighting through this story the extent to which all three books contain an “African quest narrative.” Is it the public circumcision that is supposed to convey to readers Mandela’s “African-ness”?
Clearly the least interesting part of Mandela’s life has to do with circumcision if you read Conversations With Myself (which one of us is reading right now). Yet Ledgard goes farther in extrapolating strange details from Mandela’s life in his exploration of the books in his shaky portraiture.
In Ledgard’s concluding remarks, he references Mandela’s two failed marriages and estranged familiar relationships. Does it give us a better sense of Mandela’s humanity, or life, to speculate about these relationships without any context? Surely the average person can imagine the toll prison places on a relationship, and the choices political figures must make to advance their cause. Mandela reveals much himself about the gravity of these choices in “Conversations of my Father.” From Ledgar’s writing one would imagine Mandela a Lothario of sorts–and yet again even the beginning historian can imagine Winnie Mandela’s disturbing political evolution during Mandela’s imprisonment contributing to a troubled marriage.
Ledgard says of the three books, David James Smith’s Young Mandela is the one to read. But we’ll stick with Mandela’s own words, Conversations with Myself, because only Mandela experienced his life.
* Who is the Europe correspondent for The Economist?–Caitlin Chandler, Sean Jacobs