MANDELA: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY by Anthony Sampson Alfred A. Knopf 688 pp.,$30
The world hungers for heroes like Nelson Mandela. South Africa's transition from apartheid to majority rule unfolded at a time when there was no shortage of "big stories" on the world's screen: the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, and Boris Yeltsin's heroism in facing down the antigovernment coup in Moscow.
But even in these extraordinary times, the first president of a multiracial South Africa towers above his peers on the world stage. He was - and is - no saint, but an authentic hero. That he was able, as this excellent new biography makes clear, to save his country from political chaos is one of the great moral and political achievements of our time.
His life is also a study in leadership. As his experience illustrates, that intangible but unmistakable quality includes instincts and upbringing, as well as the outward gestures that we presumably all could teach ourselves to make, if we only thought of it.
In Mandela's case, these include everything from his attention to his physical presence and his clothes to his willingness to invest time and intellectual energy in learning the Afrikaans language and reading its literature, the better to understand his adversaries.
Mandela is a great-grandson of Ngubengcuka, the great king of the Tembu people, who ruled before the British imposed their power on Tembuland, the southern part of the Transkei. This regal background may explain why he and Queen Elizabeth of England seem to relate so well to each other, royal to royal, as it were. (Margaret Thatcher proved a notably pricklier character, however.) Like many mission-educated children of his era, he acquired an imperial British first name at the start of his schooling. Yes, he really was named for Lord Nelson, hero of the Battle of Trafalgar.
His equivalent of a log-cabin childhood was among the huts of Qunu in the Transkei. As Sampson notes, "The security and simplicity of his rural upbringing played a crucial part in forming his political confidence."
But his capacity for heroic political leadership was also enlarged and refined during his 27 years in prison, as Sampson explains.
"In the microcosm of prison, stripped of all political trappings - platforms, megaphones, newspapers, crowds, well-tailored suits - and confined with his colleagues every day, he was able, as he put it, to stand back from himself, to see himself as others saw him. He learned to control his temper and strong will, to empathize and persuade, and to extend his influences and authority, not just over the other prisoners, but over the warders."
That he had the character to emerge not embittered but transformed by his ordeal will prove one of the great notes of human history. He quite literally, and profoundly, "led captivity captive," to borrow the Psalmist's phrase.
Mandela's first stay on Robben Island was for only a few weeks, but it was, Sampson writes, "long enough to make his mark, and to establish the principle he was to follow throughout his prison years: that the behavior of the warders was determined by a prisoner's attitude to them. He would often recall his first encounter with one of the Kleynhans brothers, who shouted, 'Here I am your boss!' and told him and the other three prisoners to jog to the cells, as if they were cattle. Mandela insisted on walking in front, deliberately slowing the pace, while Kleynhans yelled, 'We will kill you!'"
When it was first handed down, his life sentence came as a relief: He had been braced for hanging on a charge of sabotage for his part in the African National Congress's armed struggle against apartheid.
The armed struggle was largely symbolic, and rather amateurish to boot, as we read. The ANC's collective expertise in explosives was limited. More to the point, Mandela didn't want to unleash the kind of violence in his country that had characterized the Algerian struggle for independence, for instance.
The ANC, however, felt it had to maintain the threat of violence to keep the white regime's minds focused on the struggle - even though renouncing violence would have made Mandela a free man.
Sampson, a British journalist and the author of nearly 20 books, has known Mandela since before the latter's imprisonment.
Despite the phrase "authorized biography" in the title, this book has an edge. Sampson details Mandela's often strained family relationships compassionately but candidly. Discussing Mandela's second wife, Winnie, he acknowledges the special difficulties she had to endure while her famous husband was in prison, but doesn't shrink from the issues of her complicity in the murder of young Stompie Seipei by her bodyguards.
The more serious issues Sampson discusses are whether this universal hero would actually be able to reconnect with a country that had grown up without him, and whether he would be able to control the violence that threatened to plunge South Africa into all-out civil war after all.
The answer on both counts was yes - much to the good fortune of his country and the world.
*Ruth Walker is the Monitor's correspondent in Toronto.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society