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The Liberator



The Story of Nelson Mandela.

By Bill Keller.

Illustrated. 128 pp.

Photograph by Hans Gedda

In “Tree Shaker,” Bill Keller writes about a presidential campaign based on hope, change and racial healing. He explores the tension between inspiring, idealistic leadership and the art of political compromise. This is not the United States election of 2008. It is the story of Nelson Mandela and the transformation of South Africa.

“I have witnessed countless election campaigns in the United States,” writes Keller, who traveled with Mandela and covered his historic 1994 run for president. “Although the exercise of democracy always moves me, the political campaigns often feel phony. Candidates try to avoid controversial positions. Slick television ads take the place of real debate. Most voters don’t even bother to show up and cast their ballot. South Africa’s first free election, by comparison, was thrilling. ... I often felt that the entire frustrated history of black South Africa was exploding before my eyes.”

With its striking layout, bright graphics and photographs on almost every page, Keller’s biography of Mandela vibrates with the feeling of history come alive.


he author — now the executive editor of The New York Times — describes how he arrived in Johannesburg as bureau chief for the newspaper in 1992, just in time to witness the complete transformation of a society. The Mandela motorcade “would roll onto a barren soccer field surrounded by rickety bleachers, and the township would erupt in delirium. The throngs hung from lampposts and clung to the tops of fences. They filled the bleachers with a blaze of brightly colored sun umbrellas.”

That Mandela, 75 years old when he was released from 27 years in prison, was often a dull speaker and a stiff, tired old man didn’t matter. He was about to end centuries of brutal white rule in the first election in which his black countrymen could vote, succeeding F. W. de Klerk as president.

Keller tells Mandela’s incredible life story, from his birth into the royal family of the Xhosa tribe and his bucolic childhood in a tiny village, to his career as a lawyer who packed courtrooms with crowds eager to hear him battle racist white prosecutors and judges, to his rise as a leader of the insurgent African National Congress. But the book is not hagiography. Keller touches on Mandela’s flaws, including his youthful rejection of a multiracial movement. Of Winnie Mandela, a victim of persecution and torture by the white government, Keller writes that she “lacked her husband’s patience and diplomatic skills” and ultimately became “a bitter and brutal woman.” (During Mandela’s long imprisonment she became increasingly militant and led a gang of thuggish supporters.)

This book does not condescend to its young audience, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. A section on the A.N.C.’s turn away from nonviolence, for example, doesn’t offer judgments. Mandela’s own position, which Keller includes in a large-type quotation, was that “nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.” Thus, the A.N.C. turned to terrorism before it achieved political power, including a 1986 car bombing that killed three women and wounded 69 bystanders at two crowded bars. But Keller gives enough background on apartheid, including an early chapter on the horrors of Dutch colonialism, to explain why Mandela and his comrades would resort to such desperate measures.

More a historian here than a biographer, Keller dispenses with some personal details of Mandela’s life — including the death of an infant daughter and the end of his marriage to Winnie Mandela — in single-sentence asides. In a thoughtful afterword he explains why he resisted the temptation to tell a more heroic story. “Above my desk in Johannesburg I used to keep a headline from a South African newspaper,” he writes: “Mandela: ‘I’m Not Messiah.’” Mandela knew that “exaggerated legends, even when they contain a large measure of truth, create impossible expectations.”

The book concludes with a mixed assessment of South Africa’s progress. The country is still struggling with AIDS, crime, corruption and crushing poverty. But it is a democracy. The black majority now has a role in deciding its own fate.

Keller details how Mandela’s imperfections — his willingness to let the ends justify the means, his emotional detachment and enormous pragmatism — contributed to his extraordinary achievements. He was not a savior, the author suggests, but a politician. “Politician is not a word that commands great respect these days,” he notes. But Mandela was the best kind. Through his vision, self-discipline and personal charm, he changed the world.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive magazine.


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