2 books look at men who ended apartheid

Tutu, Mandela used hard work, good luck

October 08, 2006|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun staff

In the current alignment of American politics, there would be little doubt from which point on the social compass a statement like this might come: "We will show that scripture and the mainstream of Christian tradition and teaching know nothing of the dichotomies so popular in our day which demand the separation of religion from politics."

But before jumping to any praise or denunciation, you should know those words were spoken in 1982 by Desmond K. Tutu as he took over leadership of the South African Council of Churches and unapologetically said that he would use that pulpit to speak out against the injustices of the apartheid regime in that country.

They are quoted in Rabble Rouser for Peace, the excellent new biography of Tutu by John Allen, a South African journalist who became a longtime aide to Tutu.

Among its many virtues, this book reminds readers that Tutu is, at his base, a spiritual man, driven to the spotlight that he seemed to love by deep-seated religious beliefs. Such beliefs are, of course, completely admirable when they drive people to take positions you agree with, and irrationally despicable when they do the opposite.

Tutu, who turned 75 yesterday, is not the only hero of the new South Africa getting feted in print this fall. Nelson Mandela gets coffee-table treatment in Mandela: The Authorized Portrait, an uneven but compelling collection of pictures, text, documents and testimonials that is as hard to put down as a bag of nutritious potato chips, if there is such a thing. Tutu wrote one of the book's introductions. Bill Clinton wrote the other.

Taken together, these books are a reminder that the miracle that was the relatively peaceful transition of South Africa from apartheid to democracy was not the result of some bolt of lightning. While, as Tutu eloquently states, it might have had divine guidance, it ultimately came about because of a lot of hard work and some exceptionally good luck.

A big part of the latter was that this country produced people like Tutu and Mandela, and that the South African populace responded to their greatness. Both ingredients seem to be in short supply in the current big experiment in democracy-transition, Iraq.

Though clearly designed to put its subject on a pedestal, Mandela succeds best when it does the opposite. Edited by Mandela colleagues Mac Maharaj and Ahmed Kathrada, with a servicable biographical narrative by Mike Nicol, the book's power comes when it delivers the person, not the myth.

That comes from seeing its astonishing collection of photographs - many published for the first time - of Mandela as well as many images of South Africa during this time of turmoil and triumph. It comes when it lets you read Mandela's achingly sensitive letters from prison, many to his wife, Winnie.

And the person also shows up in some of the many stories told by the famous - and not-so-famous -who contribute testimonials. Those that stand out connect the public and private Mandela.

One comes from former President Clinton, who says he asked Mandela how he could emerge from prison without an apparent hint of bitterness. Mandela said that his jailers had taken everything from him except mind and heart. "And I decided not to give them away." Years later, as Clinton faced an impeachment vote by Congress, Thabo Mbeki, who would be South Africa's next president, was paying a visit to Washington. Mandela said he should deliver a message to Clinton. Mbeki said he didn't know what it meant but told the U.S. president, "He said I should tell you `not to give them away.' "

As Clinton writes, "Mandela will never know how much he helped me get through that period."

On an even more personal note is the contribution from the British filmmaker Richard Attenborough, who made Gandhi and, with Mandela's permission from jail, Cry Freedom, about the doomed black activist Steve Biko and his white lawyer.

After his release from prison, Mandela and Attenborough met on a few occastions. When Mandela heard that Attenborough had lost his daughter and granddaughter in the Pacific tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004, Mandela tried to contact him while in England a few weeks later, but they missed connections. Then the phone rang and Mandela, who lost a son to a car crash while in prison, was on the line from South Africa. "Oh my dear Richard, I so wanted to see you because I know what your loss is. And I wanted to hug you. I want to hug you. I want to hold you in my arms."

What these show is that Mandela's political stances are rooted in the personal. It was not some staff person jotting off a note to Clinton or Attenborough, it was an attentive human being making that connection. Rare is the person who can translate such personal focus to a national and world stage. Mandela could.

Similarly, Rabble Rouser for Peace connects the publicly political Tutu to the privately spirtual one, showing the seamless flow from one to the other.

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