UPDATE: I did not realize this when I wrote this post, but author Fatima Meer died yesterday.
It’s hard to believe, but this February marked 20 years since Nelson Mandela emerged, lean, unbroken and unbowed, after 27 years in prison.
Walking hand-in-hand with his then-wife Winnie, the 71-year-old Mandela waved his fist back and forth before flying to a massive rally and proclaiming his lifelong commitment to a free and democratic South Africa. He added that this was an ideal for which he hoped to live, but one for which he was willing to die.
Long-time activist Fatima Meer wrote Higher Than Hope, an authorized biography of Mandela, shortly before his release. The book sheds important light on rarely seen sides of Mandela the man and offers a sympathetic portrayal of Winnie before her credibility in many people’s eyes had completely eroded.
Mandela has been the subject of many biographies-his own Long Walk to Freedom and Mary Benson’s work are two of the more compelling-and Meer’s effort gives a flavor of the Transkei where he grew up, the African traditions in which he was immersed and that helped form him, his years in Johannesburg as a young lawyer with Oliver Tambo, his unceasing contributions to the nonviolent struggle and his time as the “Black Pimpernel” after he and others had decided to take up the armed struggle against the apartheid government.
One of my favorite sections in the book is about the Rivonia Trial, to which Mandela famously appeared in traditional garb before issuing a lengthy speech that Meer makes the subject of an entire chapter. In the speech, Mandela explains his vision of the ANC’s nonviolent campaign, asserts that the government forced the organization to turn to the strategic use of violence, and gives repeated statements that he is not, and never has been, a Communist.
The speech’s content and drama are heightened by the dramatic stakes surrounding its delivery. Mandela and the other defendants received a life sentence, but easily could have been sentenced to death.
Mandela has generated many memorable stories during his lifetime, and Meer supplies a lot of them. She writes about how Mandela faced down an abusive guard on his first day on Robben Island and refused at another point to look away while a different guard forced an inmate to polish his boots.
Although Meer does not back away from Mandela’s flaws, she paints a full and rich portrait of a courageous and unbreakable leader-though not the one who would later lead the nation toward racial reconciliation.
Yet, if Mandela is the book’s primary character, Winnie also plays a significant role in the story. Meer writes with respect and admiration about the strength with which she met the many bannings, imprisonments and torture during the years she and Mandela were married.
After the book’s Epilogue, Meer includes a series of letters between the couple as well as from Mandela and his children. These documents give unusually intimate access to the private Mandela’s innermost thoughts, and add an additional flavor to this worthwhile work.