The great Nelson Mandela turned 91 on Saturday.
His birthday was met with what has become the usual pomp and circumstance: star-studded concerts featuring artists like Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin; heartfelt tributes from around the globe; and an appearance by the man himself. Although walking with the cane that has become his constant companion in recent years, the former African National Congress head appeared spry and vital.
One of the 20th century’s truly heroic figures, Mandela has been the subject of innumerable books. I have not read all of them by any means, but do have a soft spot for the following:
1. The Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela I wrote on Valentine’s Day about Mandela’s autobiography, which was published shortly after the country’s first democratic and free elections in 1994. While at times the book feels like an Academy Award acceptance speech in that Mandela seems to be thanking everyone who ever contributed to the struggle, the sentiment is genuine and does not detract much from this fascinating account of his birth in the Transkei, flight from an arranged marriage to Johannesburg at age 19, and gradual exposure to what became his lifelong commitment to a free South Africa.
This book by one of South Africa’s leading journalists and the author of The Mind of South Africa, an intellectual history that owes much to the work of W.J. Cash, reads like a thriller as it covers the covert negotiations that began in the mid-80s and continued until Mandela’s 1994 election as president.
Nelson Mandela:The Man and the Movement, by Mary Benson This biography, which was published before The Long Walk to Freedom, provides a balanced and thorough look at Mandela’s early years, time in Johannesburg, years at the Black Pimpernel, Rivonia Trial and many of his years in prison.
Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, by John Carlin.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup, held in South Africa, marked the country’s reintegration into the world sporting scene. Rugby had been part of the glue in the wall of legal separation that was apartheid.
Carlin shows how Mandela, by donning the Springboks‘ green jersey, visiting the team in the locker room and prowling the sidelines as the team battled in the waning minutes of extra time against the mighty and favored All Blacks, transformed the former symbol white domination to the dawning of the Rainbow Nation.
Francois Pienaar, the scion of French Hugenots and the articulate team captain, is one of the book’s major characters.
Years later, he recalled that after the game ended, Mandela said, ‘Thank you very much for what you’ve done for South Africa” but I said “Thank you for what you’ve done.”
Indeed. The world, and not just South Africa, is grateful that Nelson Rolihlalhla Mandela has walked among for 91 years, and, hopefully, for more to come.