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Posted on: June 25th, 2014 by BWNWAdmin No Comments

Knowing Mandela  by John Carlin

For journalists accustomed to the difference between the projected image of public figures and the real person, skepticism is their default. John Carlin was the South African correspondent for the London Independent from 1990 – 1995.   He hears Nelson Mandela at the first press conference after his release from prison, talking “so soberly yet so sunnily.”  When the conference was over, the journalists responded with a “long burst of spontaneous, heartfelt applause,” something Carlin had never seen before or again in 30 years of reporting.   Somehow, Mandela had hypnotized them “into forgetting we were working journalists, making a mockery of our pretensions of objectivity.”  How does a man, who has spent twenty-seven years in prison on political charges, come out without a trace of bitterness or the desire for vengeance? Was Mandela genuine or was he putting on an act?  Was Carlin, along with many others, taken in?  These are the questions Carlin sets out to answer.

Sentenced to life in prison in 1964, Mandela not only achieved his freedom, but also the freedom of his country from apartheid.  “He redeemed black South Afrikaners from tyranny and white South Africa from its sins.” He had become “quite possibly the most unanimously admired head of state in history.”

How did this happen?  Mandela understood the humanness of his enemies and accepted them.  While in prison, he learned Afrikaans, the oppressor’s language and then studied Afrikaans history.  In that way, he was able to internalize their fears and hopes and communicate that understanding to them.  From his jailer, who became a life-long friend, to the Queen of England, who he called by her first name and was perhaps the only person to do so, Mandela saw people as people, no matter their status or title.

He was also shrewd and tough-minded.  He knew vengeance would have a back-lash.  Violence promotes more violence so he chose a different course and appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which offered amnesty to apartheid-era wrongdoers in exchange for confession of crimes.  “He had fixed values: justice, equality, respect for all.  He had a defined objective: to overthrow apartheid and establish in his country a system of one person, one vote.  And he had a clear vision, after coming out of prison, of how to get there: by reconciling old enemies and forging a lasting peace between them.”

Seeking an answer to his questions, Carlin asks Archbishop Tutu about Mandela’s actions.  “Is it spontaneous?  Is it calculated?”  Tutu’s answer was “Yes and no.”

– Reviewed by Dorothy Sampson


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