Mandela: A Biography

Posted on September 10, 2012 by Jack Kelly
Tags: readings

Biographies are one of my favourite types of book. There’s obviously a bit of a selection bias here, but I always enjoy reading about people who have managed incredible things. (Nobody would seriously publish a biography of Ted the Office Worker.) Most recently, I read Martin Meredith’s Mandela: A Biography, but I have only just had a chance to write about it.

The attempts by the anti-apartheid groups to obtain basic rights read like a dystopian novel; petitions to the government were ignored, any sort of protest action was violently put down and once someone was targeted by the state, it didn’t matter if they were innocent or not - if they were acquitted by a court they’d be arrested for something else before they left the courthouse. Slacktivists on the internet are fond of “row row fight the power” rhetoric, but this is what standing up to a repressive regime really looks like: having your personal movement regulated by pass laws; being driven into hiding, seeing your family for short snatches if at all; and being prepared to accept a death sentence without appeal to make a political point.

Aside: Does the internet make it easier or harder to get a protest movement into the streets? I’ve seen it asserted that Twitter enabled the Arab Spring movements in Tunisia, Egypt and so forth, but online slactivism may act as a relief valve for the dissatisfied, preventing a movement from gathering momentum. Discuss (5 marks).

And then there was the fact that Mandela was sentenced to life on Robben Island, with (at the time) pretty much no expectation of ever leaving. As it was, he was imprisoned for 27 years. How do you face something like that? And yet he maintained a routine of daily exercise (waving his arms around in his tiny cell), persistently lobbied the prison for better conditions and became the main representative for the other inmates.

It was disappointing to read how the post-apartheid government became bogged down in controversies over wasteful spending, corruption and personal scandals. How did that happen? Regardless, I’m glad I read this book. The things they had to endure to obtain basic human rights I still can’t quite comprehend. Would I be able to survive that sort of systemic repression? I have no idea.

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