Young Nelson Mandela: 'Petty,' Kind of a Jerk?

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It's not easy to find another living person who has led a life quite as inspiring as that of Nelson Mandela. Already 30 when South Africa instituted Apartheid in 1948, his decades of protest and political involvement culminated in his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize and 1994-1999 presidency of South Africa. Countless volumes have been written about Mandela's 27 years in prison and his incredible work after his 1990 release, but what about the earl years, before he became one of the world's most famous political prisoners?

David James Smith profiles the period from 1948 to 1962 in his new book, Young Mandela: The Revolutionary Years. Reading the biography, The New Republic's Joshua Hammer reaches a surprising conclusion: the young Mandela "combines greatness with pettiness, compassion with coldness, altruism with selfishness."

Smith shows again and again that Mandela's deepening commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle damaged those closest to him, and, in the end, led him to accept almost casually the role of martyr, despite the terrible consequences for nearly everyone in his orbit.

While Mandela's political work has made him "near-deified," behind those efforts was a "messy personal life." He struggled to connect with an "estranged son from his first marriage" who was dying of AIDS. He left his first wife as his career grew and, even much later in life, endured a nasty and very public divorce with his second wife. Hammer concludes by praising Smith's work to chronicle the less-saintlike aspects of Mandela's life.

Smith reminds us of the contradictions that often exist between the public and private lives of famous men, and forces us to reckon with costs of greatness. Young Mandela is a portrait that is likely to rankle some of those closest to Mandela, but Mandela is in no need of more hagiography, and Smith's account performs the great service of making the hero more fully human.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.