A Nelson Mandela And South Africa Reading List


Credit: The New Yorker

It’s easy to get overwhelmed in this weekend’s flood of coverage of the life of late South African anti-apartheid movement and President Nelson Mandela. But if you’re interested in engaging more deeply with Mandela’s legacy and South African history than an obituary or two will allow, here are five articles and five books that will get you started on your study.


1. “Disappointment in Successors to Nelson Mandela, a Revered Father of a Nation,” Lydia Polgreen, New York Times: All of Polgreen’s reporting from South Africa feels essential this week, but this piece is a good place to start. As we remember Mandela, it’s both easy and dangerous to think of the negotiated end of apartheid and Mandela’s election as South Africa’s president as the end of the country’s problems. But the country he inherited was one of savage economic inequalities. And Polgreen’s piece is a good jumping off point for exploring Mandela’s decision to prioritize racial reconciliation over redistribution, the failures of the leaders who followed him, and the Mandela family’s varied approaches to politics.

2. “Mandela And The Politics Of Forgiveness,” Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker: “If the American reverence for Mandela is at least partly self-interested, the country has not just wandered into someone else’s story. Prior to becoming Prime Minister of South Africa, Jan Smuts had studied the issues of race and federalism at the heart of the American Civil War in hopes of avoiding the same outcome. Years later, the architecture of apartheid was explicitly modelled on America’s Jim Crow system of segregation,” Cobb explains, in a concise and upsetting history of the ways in which the United States and South Africa mirrored each other, and the very wrong choices the U.S. has made about how to engage with South Africa.

3. “As We Memorialize Mandela, Remember Those Who Stood With Him,” Scott Simon, NPR: Nelson Mandela became the most visible political figure in South Africa, but he was part of a larger movement. Simon doesn’t have a lot of space here to go into depth about Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, and Stephen Biko, three important anti-apartheid activists, but the piece is a good jumping off point. If you’re curious, I’d also recommend reading more about Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo and Ruth First, who was assassinated by the South African Police while in exile in Mozambique.

4. “The Angry Man,” Eve Fairbanks, Foreign Policy: Fairbanks, whose work I love, examines the desire to remember Mandela as a primarily peaceful, kind, forgiving figure, even though anger was a huge driver of his work against apartheid–even after he was released from prison. “People involved in the negotiations to end white rule in South Africa — after Mandela was released from prison — have often told me how unbelievably ‘stubborn,’ even disposed to flashes of rage, he could be, and how that stubbornness contributed to the ANC’s gains at the bargaining table just as much as his newfound warm-heartedness,” she writes. “They sort of whisper it, like it is a dirty secret.”

5. “Be Nelson Mandela,” Timothy Burke, Swarthmore: This is a personal essay by a professor, but it does better than almost anything else I’ve seen at working through the ways the memorialization of Mandela tries to avoid going to a place that makes a lot of mainstream commentators awfully uncomfortable. ” At best, they occasion the grudging admission, ‘I thought he was a terrorist or a revolutionary, but it turns out he was a great man,'” Burke writes of Mandela’s former critics, who are now apologizing for their errors. “But put one foot in front of the other and soon you’ll be walking out the door: the next step might be to recognize that he was a terrorist and a revolutionary and a great man.”


1. Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela: If you want to know more about the life of Nelson Mandela, his memoirs are a terrific place to start. Not all autobiographies by great men are worth reading, but Mandela is self-aware, self-critical, and at times, very funny. Re-reading large sections of it for my piece on his cultural legacy, I was struck by how often Mandela talks about music, for example. It’s genuinely a life story, not just a political document.

2. A History Of South Africa, Leonard Thompson: As I’ve tried to communicate in this post, the struggle against apartheid didn’t begin, nor does it end, with Nelson Mandela. The history of South Africa doesn’t either. Thompson’s sturdy little survey history starts with South Africa’s environment and archaeology and a reminder that “Modern Western culture is inordinately present-minded. Politicians are ignorant of the past.” If you’re going to read more than one book about South Africa, it’s worth your time to back up and start from as close to the beginning as we can get.

3. Country Of My Skull, Antjie Krog: Krog is a journalist, poet, and teacher who covered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Country Of My Skull is a combination of memoir, reportage, and poetry that deals with both the facts of the commission and the emotional impact of sitting through the process, which included encounters with figures like Joe Mamasela, who was a spy and assassin for the apartheid government. “Mamasela says he had no choice but to join–he was a mere child of nineteen and up against the brutal might of the apartheid state,” Krog recalls of his testimony. “But the sums in my head tell me that in the early eighties Mamasela was nearly thirty.”

4. No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu: If you’re going to read Krog’s book, I highly recommend reading it with Tutu’s account of chairing the commission. Not only is it a useful look inside the extraordinary process, but Tutu’s deep engagement with the spiritual roots of forgiveness are a good accompaniment to many of the platitudinous things that you’ll read about Mandela and reconciliation in the weeks to come. Whether Mandela was primarily or angry or both is only so useful a debate to have. Tutu takes us deep inside what forgiveness actually means and requires beyond anecdotes like Mandela inviting one of his jailers to his inauguration.

5. Great Soul, Joseph Lelyveld: Great Soul isn’t about Nelson Mandela at all. Rather, it’s a biography of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who spent some of the formative years of his life in South Africa. The book isn’t perfect. But reading it enriches our understanding of race in South Africa, where the law recognized Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Indians as separate racial groups. And as we consider the relationship between the anti-apartheid struggle and movements like Communism, it’s a useful primer in how liberation struggles became a South African export that bore lasting fruit in India before South Africa ended apartheid.