I've known far too little about Nelson Mandela. I knew who he was, of course, and some of the bare outlines of his life. But I think I'd fallen into knowing little more than what Cornel West, after Mandela's death, called the "Santa-Clausification" of the South African leader. By that, he meant the process of turning Mandela from who he was into a harmless, strangely apolitical grandfatherly figure that could be used as a symbol by left and right alike.
Mandela's autobiography is a welcome corrective to that. Although sometimes the story lags, the arc of his radicalization, the momentum of the ANC, and the developments while he was in prison all fight against an easy depiction of him as a figure in the movement and a person. The continued defense of the movements the ANC's offshoot made towards using violence as a political tool is interesting and challenging.
It is also a very readable account of the various laws that were put in place as the basis of the apartheid system in South Africa, their implications and the ways in which they were carried out, with a parallel story of how the ANC responded to these laws as they were implemented. There are some lovely "gotcha" moments in the government's first ham-handed attempts to suppress dissent and protest, but the story grows more dire as the police and government care less and less about finding reasonable justifications for their actions.
It's a very straightforward narrative, although there are parts where interpersonal conflicts are somewhat glossed over, probably deliberately. It's his prerogative, but it does add distance to the narrative when it comes to the personal. The political, however, is fascinating.
The years in which Mandela was imprisoned take up a huge chunk of the book, and are incisive in their examination of incarceration, the struggles in prison for fair and equal treatment, side excursions into what rights prisoners should have, and how political prisoners in this instance reacted to their circumstances.
At the end, I feel like I know a great deal about the political struggle, and somewhat less about the man. Not that there isn't anything, but there is that reserve and reticence about personal issues. Again, totally his prerogative. Also, his entire life hangs together as a unified arc, and I can't help but wonder if that means that there is some messiness being elided by the smoothing out of his political path into one where his later viewpoints are almost completely harmonized with the ones he held at the beginning of his struggles.
This was an interesting read, although in some areas it raised my curiosity more than it communicated. But as a look at the struggle against apartheid, and a memoir of years spent as a political prisoner, it was fascinating.