Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dangerbooks! Higher Than Hope

I'm reading the authorized biography of Nelson Mandela, written while Mandela was still imprisoned in South Africa: Higher Than Hope by Fatima Meer. At this point I'm reading transcripts from Mandela's statement during the trial that would send him to prison for decades.


Mandela was being accused of being a communist, of fomenting violence, of all sorts of crimes. He wasn't a communist, but he admitted his involvement in acts of sabotage against the Afrikaner government. I suspect that his statement, made in 1963, informed later discussions in the United States about the extent to which acts of violence might be appropriate to the civil rights movement. Mandela was a lawyer and political philosopher, and his thought processes are on display as he argues his rationale for supporting sabotage. But also on display is his larger commitment to democracy, to racial reconciliation, to social justice. Check this out:

During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realized. But . . . if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Thirty years later, he was released from prison. Forty years later, he had seen his ideal realized. A postracial South Africa had emerged under his leadership with shocking humaneness. This guy is one of the greats.

This isn't the greatest biography I've ever read. Still in prison while it was being written, Mandela couldn't speak freely, and it verges occasionally on hagiography rather than objective reporting of history. But really, how could you not venture into saint-making when you're writing about a living martyr, a prophet of the age? I'm doing it right now, aren't I?

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