A Biography


By Martin Meredith

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Nelson Mandela stands out as one of the most admired political figures of the twentieth century. It was his leadership and moral courage above all that helped to deliver a peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa after years of racial division and violence and to establish a fledgling democracy there.

Martin Meredith’s vivid portrayal of this towering leader was originally acclaimed as “an exemplary work of biography: instructive, illuminating, as well as felicitously written” (Kirkus Reviews), providing “new insights on the man and his time” (Washington Post). Now Meredith has revisited and significantly updated his biography to incorporate a decade of additional perspective and hindsight on the man and his legacy and to examine how far his hopes for the new South Africa have been realized.

Published as South Africa celebrates 100 years since its founding and hosts the 2010 World Cup, Nelson Mandela is the most thorough and up-to-date account available of the life of its most revered hero.


The Past Is Another Country: Rhodesia—UDI to Zimbabwe
The First Dance of Freedom: Black Africa in the Postwar Era
In the Name of Apartheid: South Africa in the Postwar Era
Coming to Terms: South Africa's Search for Truth
Elephant Destiny: Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa
Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe
The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence
Diamonds, Gold, and War:
The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa

Copyright © 1997, 2010, 2014 by Martin Meredith.
First published in 1997 in Great Britain by the Penguin Group.
Published in the United States by PublicAffairs™,
a member of the Perseus Books Group.
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address PublicAffairs, 250 West 57th Street, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10107.
PublicAffairs books are available at special discounts for bulk purchases in the U.S. by corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For more information, please contact the Special Markets Department at the Perseus Books Group, 2300 Chestnut Street, Suite 200, Philadelphia, PA 19103, call (800) 810-4145, ext. 5000, or e-mail
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Little, Brown & Co. for permission to reprint extracts from Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (copyright © 1994 by Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela); and to the Alan Paton Trust for permission to quote an extract from Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (copyright © 1948 by Alan Paton). Photos appear with permission from Link; UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives; Bailey's African History Archive; GettyImages; and Magnum Photos.
Editorial production by the Book Factory.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Meredith, Martin.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-58648-832-1 (alk. paper)
1. Mandela, Nelson, 1918- 2. South Africa—Politics and government—20th century. 3. African National Congress—History. 4. Political prisoners—South Africa—Biography. 5. Presidents—South Africa—Biography. 6. South Africa—Race relations. I. Title.
DT1974 .M474
[B] 2010001287
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-58648-951-9
E-book ISBN: 978-1-58648-866-6
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For T

WHEN NELSON MANDELA WALKED THROUGH THE GATES OF VICTOR Verster prison in 1990, hand-in-hand with his wife, Winnie, it was a moment of liberation experienced around the world. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for his role in trying to overthrow South Africa's apartheid government, Mandela had languished as a prisoner on Robben Island largely forgotten for more than a decade. 'During the harsh days in the Seventies', Mandela recalled, 'we had to force ourselves not to give in to despair'. But during the 1980s, as the anti-apartheid movement gathered momentum both in South Africa and abroad, Mandela became a potent symbol of resistance. The campaign for his release was taken up in one country after another. Awards were showered upon him by foreign governments, by universities and by cities; streets were named after him; songs were written about him; his deeds were celebrated at rock concerts. Yet millions of people who supported the campaign had only scant understanding of who he was. Nor did anyone have a clear idea of what he now looked like: no new photograph of him had been published since 1964. Incarcerated in prison, Mandela gained mythical status—the lost leader whom the world yearned to see again.
Behind the façade of fame, Mandela remained at times an enigmatic figure. Prison colleagues who were his companions for years on end sometimes felt they did not really know him. He emerged from prison an intensely private person, accustomed to concealing his emotions behind a mask. He confided in few people. He disliked familiarity. The grip of self-control he acquired in prison rarely left him. His habits remained austere. He did not drink or smoke, and he never swore. At the state residences he occupied in Cape Town and Pretoria after the 1994 election, his housekeepers were well versed in his liking for neatness and order. As president, he continued to make his own bed.
Yet prison life did not rob him of either his charm or his civility. The radiance of his smile was undiminished. He possessed a natural authority and charisma, evident to all who encountered him. Despite his patrician nature, he retained the common touch. His manners were punctilious, reminiscent of another, more gracious age. He was courteous and attentive to individuals, whatever their status or age, often stopping to talk with genuine interest to children or youths. He greeted workers and tycoons with the same politeness. Indeed, he sometimes seemed more at ease with strangers than in the company of friends.
As president, he managed not only to sustain his popularity among the black population he had fought to liberate from white rule but also to gain the respect and admiration of the white community which had once reviled him. His efforts to overcome the deep racial divisions afflicting South Africa earned him universal acclaim. As a mark of his standing, the name by which he became affectionately known, by black and white alike, was Madiba, his clan name, which dated from an eighteenth-century chief. National sporting victories in rugby, soccer and cricket were sometimes attributed to 'Madiba magic', the effect of his presence among the spectators. Mandela enjoyed the fame, but remained unmoved by it and became increasingly conscious of the gap between his public image and the ordinary man he felt himself to be.
His nature was not always benign. He was feared as well as revered. He tended to be autocratic. At times he wielded his massive authority unwisely. In old age he was as capable of acting impetuously as in the days of his youth. He was still renowned on occasion for his stubbornness and quick temper. His face sometimes settled into an inscrutable, sphinx-like stare, the lines and furrows on it marking his displeasure.
Despite the ailments of old age, he brought to his years as president remarkable energy, as if anxious to make up for lost time. Approaching his eightieth year, he usually rose before dawn, relishing the prospect of an early-morning walk, devouring newspapers and telephoning colleagues long before the normal working day began. Amid an endless stream of meetings, speeches and official functions, he nevertheless ensured he had time to respond to individual requests, readily accepting invitations from schoolchildren and from ordinary citizens, telephoning strangers when the occasion arose and making himself available for snapshots. But while enjoying contact with common people, the company to which he was most attracted was that of the rich and famous; status impressed him.
The relentless pace he set himself took its toll. He succumbed occasionally to bouts of exhaustion. Constant plane travel exacerbated a hearing problem. His ankles were perennially swollen. He walked with an increasingly stiff gait. The eye affliction he had acquired from years of working in the harsh glare of the lime quarry on Robben Island gave him chronic trouble. The burdens of office sometimes seemed too onerous. 'One gets used to it, but it destroys your family life. I miss children—just being able to be with children at the end of the day and listen to them chatter'.
His private life was plagued by difficulty and disaster. Upon his release from prison, he had hoped above all else to re-establish a family home. But the wayward conduct of his wife, Winnie, her criminal activities and flagrant infidelity all blighted his late years of freedom. At the height of his popularity and fame, Mandela was a lonely figure, often spending his evenings alone.
Then, in his late seventies, his close friends noticed he had taken on 'a new lease of life'. An attachment he formed with Graca Machel, the widow of a former president of neighbouring Mozambique, a charming and strong-willed political leader with her own revolutionary credentials, blossomed into love. On a spring afternoon in 1996, they declared their affair in public by wandering hand-in-hand through the leafy suburb of Johannesburg where Mandela lived, greeting passersby and neighbours working in their gardens. Mandela was characteristically taciturn in public about their relationship, but Graca Machel was more forthcoming. 'To me it is wonderful that we have found each other after so much pain, and that we can share a life together', she said. She was equally forthright about her view of Mandela: 'He is really a very simple man. He doesn't have hidden parts of himself. That's what makes him so lovable'.
In his latter years as president, Mandela became more mellow and more reflective. His official speeches were often interspersed with reminiscences and anecdotes, usually told with self-deprecating humour. One anecdote he particularly enjoyed concerned a private visit he made to the Bahamas, shortly before his election victory in 1994. In the street he was approached by a man and his wife who appeared to recognise him. 'Aren't you Nelson Mandela?' the man asked. 'I'm often confused with that chap', replied Mandela mischievously. The man was not convinced and whispered to his wife about their unexpected find. 'What is he famous for?' his wife inquired in a hushed tone. Not satisfied with her husband's mumbled response, the woman turned to Mandela and asked outright, 'What are you famous for?'

MANDELA WAS BORN IN THE SIMPLE SURROUNDINGS OF A PEASANT village on the banks of the Mbashe river in Thembuland. But for his royal connections, his childhood would have been no different from those of many others there. His great-grandfather Ngubengcuka, however, was a Thembu king, renowned for his skill in bringing stability to diverse Thembu clans in the early nineteenth century. And although Mandela was descended from only a minor branch of the dynasty—the Left-hand House—his link with the Thembu royal family was to have a marked influence on both his character and his fortunes.
His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was the village headman at Mvezo. A tall, respected figure, he presided over local ceremonies and officiated at traditional rites for such occasions as births, marriages, funerals, harvests and initiation ceremonies. Like most of his generation, he had had no formal education; he could not read or write. But he had a keen sense of history and was valued as a counsellor to the royal family. He was also wealthy enough at one time to afford four wives and sired in all thirteen children.
Mandela's mother, Nosekeni Nkedama, was the third of Gadla's wives. She bore four children, the eldest of whom, Mandela, was her only son but the youngest of Gadla's four sons. Like Gadla, she could neither read nor write. While Gadla adhered to the traditional Qaba faith, involving the worship of ancestral spirits, Nosekeni became a devout Christian, taking the name of Fanny.
The Xhosa name given to Mandela at his birth on 18 July 1918 was Rolihlahla, which meant literally 'pulling the branch of a tree', but more colloquially 'troublemaker', and there were friends and relatives who later ascribed to his Xhosa name the troubles he would encounter. But the name by which he became popularly known was an English one, Nelson, given to him by an African teacher on the first day he attended school. For that, there was no ready explanation, only surmise that it was taken from the famous English admiral.
It was shortly after he was born that the Mandela household itself encountered serious trouble. Gadla's position as headman was dependent not only upon tribal lineage but upon the approval of white officials in the Cape colonial administration. After its annexation by Britain in 1885, Thembuland had come under the control of colonial magistrates who maintained a system of indirect rule through village headmen appointed to keep order among the local population as well as to represent their interests. The same system remained in place when Thembuland became part of the Union of South Africa, established in 1910, eight years before Mandela was born.
Well known for his stubbornness, Gadla fell into a minor dispute over cattle with the local magistrate and refused to answer a summons to appear before him. Gadla took the view that the matter was of tribal concern and not part of the magistrate's jurisdiction. He was dismissed for insubordination, losing not only his government stipend but most of his cattle and his land and the revenue that went with them. Facing penury, he sent Nosekeni and her young son to Qunu, a village to the north of Mvezo, about twenty miles from the town of Umtata, where her family could help support her. It was there that Mandela spent his boyhood.
The landscape around Qunu—undulating hills, clear streams and lush pastures grazed by cattle, sheep and goats—made an indelible impression on Mandela. Qunu was the place where he felt his real roots lay. It was a settlement of beehive-shaped huts in a narrow valley where life continued much as it had done for generations past. The population there, numbering no more than a few hundred, consisted predominantly of 'red' people, who dyed their blankets and clothes with red ochre, a colour said to be beloved by ancestral spirits and the colour of their faith. There were few Christians in Qunu and those that were there stood out because of the Western-style clothes they wore.
The Mandela homestead, like most others in Qunu, was simple. Their beehive huts—a cluster of three—were built without windows or chimneys. The floors were made of crusted earth taken from ant - hills and kept smooth with layers of fresh cow dung. There was no furniture, in the Western sense. Everyone slept on mats, without pillows, resting their heads on their arms. Smoke from the fire filtered through the grass roof. There was no opening other than a low doorway. Their diet was also simple, mainly maize, sorghum, beans and pumpkins grown in fields outside the village and amasi, fermented milk stored in calabashes. Only a few wealthy families could afford luxuries like tea, coffee and sugar, bought from the local store.
Having four wives, each living in her own kraal several miles apart, Gadla visited them in turn, spending perhaps one week a month with each one. With his children, he was a strict disciplinarian. Complete obedience was expected, in accordance with Thembu tradition; questions were rarely tolerated. The life that Mandela led as a child was governed by strict codes of custom and taboo, guiding him through each state of adolescence. The number of taboos restricting the course of daily life, for men, boys, girls and especially married women, ran into hundreds. Most were associated with sex, with key passages of life and with food. All were held in superstitious awe. Any transgression could incur the wrath of ancestral spirits, which was to be avoided at all costs.
Along with tribal discipline came the support of an extended family. The Mandela household in Qunu was often full of relatives, taking as much interest in the Mandela children as in their own. In Thembu tradition, as with many other African tribes, uncles and aunts were as responsible for the welfare of children as the children's own parents and were referred to as 'little fathers' and 'little mothers'. The family circle in which Mandela grew up was thus an affectionate one. Even though he remembered his father mainly for his stern countenance, Mandela tried to emulate him by rubbing white ash into his hair in imitation of the tuft of white hair above Gadla's forehead. Like Gadla, he had the distinctive facial features of the Madiba clan, high cheek-bones and slanting eyes.
From the age of five, Mandela was set to work as a herdboy, looking after sheep and calves and learning the central role that cattle played in Thembu society. Cattle were not only a source of meat and milk but the main medium of exchange and the measure of a tribes-man's wealth. As the price of a bride was paid in cattle, without cattle there could be no marriage. Moreover, the principal means of propitiating ancestral spirits were through the sacrifice of cattle. Significant events like funerals were marked by their slaughter.
Much of Mandela's time was also spent in the open veld in the company of members of his own age group, stick-throwing and fighting, gathering wild honey and fruits, trapping birds and small animals that could be roasted, and swimming in the cold streams—the normal pursuits of young Thembu boys.
What first set him on a different course was the influence of two villagers known as Mfengu. The Mfengu had arrived in Thembuland and neighbouring Xhosaland as refugees fleeing southwards from a series of wars and upheavals called the mfecane which accompanied the rise of the Zulu kingdom in the 1820s. Drawn from a number of different clans among the northern Nguni, the refugees, some moving in scattered bands, others in larger groups, were given the name of Mfengu to describe their position as suppliants and were often treated with contempt and animosity. Lacking land and cattle, many formed a servant class for the Thembu and their Xhosa neighbours. But they were also more readily adaptable to serving the interests of white colonists. Mfengu levies fought as combatants on the colonial side in four frontier wars in the Cape Colony, helping to inflict defeats on the Xhosa. They were rewarded with land and cattle. A large area of what had been Xhosa territory was designated as Fingoland. They were also among the first to take advantage of Christian missionary education, acquiring new skills and finding employment as teachers, clerks, policemen and court officials.
Mandela's father did not share the common prejudice against Mfengu. Among his friends were two Mfengu brothers, George and Ben Mbekela, both Christian, one a retired teacher, the other a police sergeant. It was their suggestion that Mandela should be baptised and sent to the local mission-run school. Gadla, recognising that an education was the only advancement available for his youngest son, accepted the idea.
At the age of seven, Mandela went to the one-room school in Qunu, crossing the boundary between 'red' people and 'school' people. To mark the occasion, Gadla presented him with a pair of his old trousers, cut off at the knee and fastened around his waist with a piece of string. Hitherto, the only clothing that Mandela had worn had been a blanket, wrapped around one shoulder and pinned at the waist. 'I must have been a comical sight,' he wrote in his autobiography, 'but I have never owned a suit I was prouder to wear than my father's cut-off trousers.'
Two years later, in the Mandela household in Qunu, Gadla died, leaving Nosekeni without the means to continue her son's education. The event changed Mandela's life dramatically. Because of his family ties to the Thembu royal house and to the Madiba clan dating back to an eighteenth-century Thembu chief, the young Mandela was taken up as a ward by Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu people. Accompanied by his mother, he left the simple idyll of Qunu, walking across the hills westwards to Mqheke - zweni, the provisional capital of Thembuland, where Jongintaba maintained his Great Place, and entered a new world.
The royal residence, consisting of two large rectangular houses with corrugated-iron roofs surrounded by seven thatched rondavels all washed in white lime, was more impressive than anything the young Mandela had ever seen. As he approached, Jongintaba himself arrived in a Ford V8, to be greeted by a group of tribal elders who had been waiting in the shade of eucalyptus trees with the traditional salute, 'Bayete, Jongintaba!'—'Hail, Jongintaba!'
In accordance with tribal custom, Mandela was accepted by Jongintaba into the Great Place as if he were his own child. He shared a rondavel with his only son, Justice, wore the same kind of clothes and was subject to the same parental discipline. The regent's wife, NoEngland, treated him with equal affection and, once his own mother had returned to Qunu, soon filled her place. Life at Mqhekezweni was too full of excitement for Mandela to miss for long the world he had loved at Qunu. Even the chores seemed more enjoyable. He took particular pride in ironing the creases in the trousers of Jongintaba's suits.
What impressed him above all was the influence of the chieftaincy. Under colonial rule, hereditary chiefs had retained a wide range of powers and functions. They continued to conduct traditional court cases, to collect tributary fees and dues, and to exercise considerable authority over the distribution of land. They constituted a central part of the colonial administrative system, held in high esteem by white officials, while enjoying at the same time the traditional support of the local population.
Watching at close quarters the way in which Jongintaba exercised his power as regent, Mandela became absorbed by the workings of the chieftaincy. At tribal meetings at the Great Place, when high-ranking councillors gathered to discuss both local and national issues, he observed how Jongintaba would take care to hear all opinions, listening in silence to whatever criticism was made, even of himself, before making a summary of what had been said and endeavouring to find a consensus of views. It was a style of leadership which made a profound impression upon him. He learned too of the proceedings of the traditional courts at Mqhekezweni, where chiefs and headmen from surrounding districts met to settle disputes and judge cases.
It was from these tribal elders, sitting around the fireside at night, that Mandela first heard stories of Robben Island. It was mentioned often by them when recounting the long history of conflict between white colonists and Xhosa-speaking tribes in the turbulent eastern frontier region of the Cape Colony during the nineteenth century. The name given to it in the Xhosa language was Esiqithini, a word which quite simply meant 'on the island'. Everybody knew which island was referred to and what it meant. For the Xhosa, it was a place of banishment and death.
The first Xhosa leader whom the whites sent to Robben Island was a warrior-prophet called Makana; he was also known by the name of Nxele, meaning the Left-handed. In 1819, in retaliation for a raid by colonial troops into Xhosa territory, Makana had led an army of 10,000 men against the British military outpost at Grahamstown, intending 'to chase the white men from the earth and drive them into the sea'. The attack, in broad daylight, failed. Four months later, after British forces had laid waste to a vast stretch of Xhosa territory, Makana gave himself up at a military camp, hoping to stop the slaughter. 'People say that I have occasioned this war,' he said. 'Let me see whether delivering myself up to the conquerors will restore peace to my country.'
Makana was sentenced to life imprisonment, taken in shackles to Port Elizabeth, put on board the brig Salisbury and delivered to Robben Island, 400 miles away, off the coast at Cape Town. It had been used since the seventeenth century as a prison colony for both criminal convicts and political dissidents. Within a year of his imprisonment, Makana, along with other inmates, helped organise an escape, seized a fishing boat and headed for the mainland three miles away. As the boat came into the breakers off Blauberg beach, it capsized. According to the survivors, Makana clung for some time to a rock, shouting encouragement to others to reach the shore, until he was swept off and engulfed by the raging surf.
Makana was never forgotten by his Xhosa followers. Many refused to believe that he was dead and waited for years for his return, giving rise to a new Xhosa expression, 'Kukuzakuka Nxele', the coming of Nxele, meaning forlorn hope.
The fate of Maqoma, the greatest military commander the Xhosa ever produced, was also well remembered. Expelled from his native valley in 1829, Maqoma engaged in a series of wars against the British in an attempt to regain lost Xhosa lands. During the 1850s, his guerrilla force based in the Amatola mountains held at bay a British army for months on end, inflicting one defeat after another.
Twice Maqoma was shipped off to Robben Island. During his first term of imprisonment, lasting eleven years, he was allowed the company of his youngest wife and a son. But on the second occasion, at the age of seventy-three, he was sent back there alone. No one else on the island spoke any Xhosa. He received no visitors. According to an Anglican chaplain who witnessed his last moments in 1873, he cried bitterly, before dying of old age and dejection, 'at being here alone—no wife, or child, or attendant'.
After nine frontier wars, Xhosa resistance against British colonial rule finally ended. Once an expanding and aggressive nation, the Xhosa had lost great swathes of land to white settlers. In the process, Xhosa leaders squabbled and fought with each other as much as they did with the white colonists. Some chiefs defected to the colonial side. Others were willing enough to collaborate. In the most desperate act of resistance, the Xhosa slaughtered vast herds of their own cattle, believing the prophecy of a teenage girl, Nongqawuse, that it would help 'in driving the English from the land'. It resulted only in mass starvation, in which tens of thousands of Xhosa died and enabled the authorities to take yet more Xhosa territory for white settlement.


On Sale
Mar 29, 2011
Page Count
688 pages

Martin Meredith

About the Author

Martin Meredith is a journalist, biographer, and historian who has written extensively on Africa and its recent history. His previous books include Mandela; Mugabe; Diamonds, Gold, and War; Born in Africa; and The Fate of Africa. He lives near Oxford, England.

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