Mandela: In Celebration of a Good Life

Published Aug 15, 2012


by Charlene Smith (Random House/Struik, R295)

Originally published in 1999, this book has already had an amazing career.

An updated version, including the suspension of Bheki Cele and the death of Eugene Terre’Blanche, was launched in June this year and in less than three weeks, a second printing was needed.

There are three reasons for the book’s success: the iconic status of its subject, the worth of its author and the beauty of its presentation.

Nelson Mandela is loved and revered by thousands of people on account of his courage, insight, empathy, courtesy, humility and warmth. In the words of Desmond Tutu: “The man is a phenomenon, in a class by himself.”

Yet, for all that, the author does not shy away from his faults, such as occasional petulance, or the mistakes he made, for example deferring to Harry Gwala and not defusing the ANC/IFP conflict sooner, as well as his failure to take the HIV/Aids threat seriously enough.

These shortcomings underline his mere mortality and throw into relief the sublime heights some mere mortals can achieve.

Charlene Smith was political correspondent for Business Day at the time of Mandela’s release from prison. She had the opportunity of interviewing him on a number of occasions and getting to know him.

To the task of writing his biography, she has brought not only her media skills and experience but also her human sensitivity. She could do justice to her subject because she displays the same ubuntu that is the source of his greatness.

I felt this as I read the book, except when she comments on his magnanimity in meeting Betsy Verwoerd and, less than magnanimously, stigmatises her as a woman “who had made hating black people her life’s mission”. Still, it was only this one sentence in about 170 pages that dimmed the book’s lustre for me.

A fine jewel calls for a worthy setting and this the publisher has provided.

The cover is beautiful and the excellent photographs are displayed to good effect on high-quality paper. Altogether, it is a volume to be treasured, one that does its subject, its author and its publisher proud. – John Boje

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