President Nelson Mandela died on December 5. There are countless remembrances in South Africa of his grace and wit, his strength, and the unconstrained speed of his forgiveness. When you take him at his word, though, you can see something else behind the beautiful character. In politics, he described himself as a strategist. He liked to make a friend, or neutralize an adversary; he liked, best of all, to transform his adversaries. For this reason his strategy, if it ever was one, was a form of the golden rule. His shrewdness about people was innocent and particular and apparently down-to-earth, and it was visible early in his life: “There is a fellow I became friendly with at Healdtown [a Methodist school], and that friendship bore fruit when I reached Johannesburg. A chap called Zachariah Molete. He was in charge of sour milk in Healdtown, and if you were friendly to him, he would give you very thick sour milk.” Mandela applied the same lesson to his jailors on Robben Island, and, in the end, to the National Party as a whole.
Mandela also liked the idea of putting things to good use. In a 1979 letter to Winnie, the turbulent woman he longed for ever more intensely from the distance of Robben Island, he was content to quote the unprovable proposition of Shakespeare’s Duke Senior: “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” On occasion his application of the argument was straightforward. As a 65-year-old man at Pollsmoor Prison, on the mainland, he read gardening books, “grew onions, eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, spinach, carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, beetroot, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries,” and supplied vegetables to wardens and to ordinary prisoners. Before that, on the island, he used the time to hold informal political discussions and to improve himself. He told Winnie that he could “look back at some of my early writings and speeches [and be] appalled by their pedantry, artificiality and lack of originality. The urge to impress and advertise is clearly noticeable.” There was often something unexpected in what good use would stretch to. During his brief underground phase as the Black Pimpernel, when he dressed as a chauffeur and a gardener to elude the Security Branch, he could go from “contemplating the natural beauty [of the Thousand Hills near Durban] to ruminating on the fact that the railway line, being so close to the highway, offered a convenient place for sabotage. I made a note of this in the small notebook I always carried with me.” At the same time he read The Revolt, by Menachem Begin, and discovered it to be “very encouraging to us, because here was a movement in a country which had no mountains.”
In truth, just as he had extended the framework of strategy to form a blueprint for humanity, Mandela pushed the idea of usefulness until it no longer resembled exploitation of things and occasions but a determination to find the universe fruitful. He took the country’s deepest and most glaring bad impulses—the constant search for individual advantage and for the chance to exploit another person, body and soul; the destructive politicization of every process; the extermination of principle by understanding that everything is strategic—and turned them inside out. He was the one man who understood South Africa, in his bones, and put its history to the only possible good use that could come of it.
In the long history of foreigners playing South Africans, particularly Mandela, for the unsound purposes of the culture industry and Hollywood liberalism, only Clarke Peters, better known as Lester Freamon on The Wire, came close to catching any aspect of the man, as a supporting player in the 2009 British production Endgame that studied the secret negotiations preceding Mandela’s release. Peters showed a wilier and more daring, more soulful and yet steelier human being than has been managed by the varied gifts of Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman, Sidney Poitier, Terrence Howard, or, just this year, Idris Elba in the biopic based on Mandela’s autobiography. Peters presented the figure in his seventies who waited confidently for Pretoria in Pollsmoor and recorded, in his diary, watching a video whose name he remembered as “The Nerds’ Revenge.” What did he make of it? Even dyed-in-the-wool revolutionaries don’t live exclusively on Shakespeare and Mao, Aimé Césaire and Gramsci. Under siege by Sharon in the Palestinian presidential offices, Yasser Arafat watched cartoons of Tom and Jerry and assumed he would come out on top in the end.
As an actor on the stage of world history, Mandela had far more force at his disposal, and more convincing costumes: from boxing gloves and a bare chest as a young man to his legendary business suits as lawyer and later President, the surprising lion skin he wore to the Treason Trial, the green-and-gold Springbok jersey he donned for the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the chauffeur’s and gardener’s disguises he used while on the run from the police, the guerrilla uniform in which he practiced demolitions in Ethiopia in 1962, and, of course, the shorts imposed on him through his fifties and sixties by a prison regimen intended to demonstrate his place to him. He consistently played against type while listening and learning from the other actors. At Fort Hare, as a university student, he played John Wilkes Booth but studied Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. On Robben Island, he was the tyrant Creon but identified Antigone as a fellow freedom fighter.
In the real world there were no freedom fighters like him. Mahatma Gandhi came closest in his insistence on transforming himself in concert with his friends and enemies. It cannot be an accident that the same intractable country produced two such great souls who drew similar conclusions and lived them out. Adversity must have its uses. The comparative biography remains to be written, but the comparison is in Mandela’s favor. Gandhi paid almost no interest to Africans. South Africa was too difficult an environment for him, for some of the same reasons that both al Qaeda and the Marine Corps reportedly find it difficult to operate in Somalia. Gandhi limited his challenges to matters of tax and Indian residency, and focused his creative energies on building a utopian community around a newspaper and printing press in Durban, as described by Isabel Hofmeyr, and at Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg. Mandela was more open, closer to his friends as well as his one-time enemies, and more capable of carrying a certain truth inside him.
Tolstoy is a sign of what they had in common. South Africa never had a reading culture and yet, throughout its history, some books have had great power they found their way into the right hands. Mandela was not an intellectual reader, reading for the sake of reading, but he found books useful. He found novels useful. As President he would stop his driver so that he could buy some novel at the bookshop. “One book that I returned to many times was Tolstoy’s great work, War and Peace,” he wrote. “I was particularly taken with the portrait of General Kutuzov, whom everyone at the Russian court underestimated.” For Mandela, Kutuzov “made his decisions on a visceral understanding of his men and his people.” He was prepared to sacrifice the city of Moscow when it became necessary. Mandela even compared Kutuzov with King Shaka, who was also uninterested in making a stand to defend mere buildings. The real-life Mikhail Illarionivich Golenischchev-Kutuzov (1745–1813), field marshal of the Russian empire, was of no importance to Mandela, but Tolstoy’s character was.
On the face of it, Kutuzov is a surprising choice for Mandela’s admiration. Even for Tolstoy, “this simple, modest, and therefore truly majestic figure could not fit into that false form of the European hero, the imaginary ruler of the people, which history has invented.” Thanks to his capacity of acceptance, and in accordance with the biological needs of life within him, Kutuzov irresponsibly dozes through a council of war on the eve of battle. He despises “both knowledge and intelligence. . . . He despised them with his old age, with his experience of life.” Despite the war, he remains embedded in ordinary pursuits which are, nevertheless, incidental: “All the rest was for him only the habitual acting out of life. His conversations with the staff, his letters to Mme de Staël, which he wrote from Tarutino, his reading of novels, distribution of rewards, correspondence with Petersburg, and so on, were the same habitual acting out of and submission to life.”
Key for Mandela was the strategy of retirement and passivity that Tolstoy’s Kutuzov applied so thoroughly as to surrender to the overwhelming force of collective and unplanned life. He saw that “circumstances are sometimes stronger than we are,” resembling Lincoln, who accepted that “events have controlled me.” His principal weapons were not military. “‘Patience and time, these are my mighty warriors!’ thought Kutuzov,” who “used all his powers to keep the Russian army from useless battles.” He accomplishes the destruction of the French invasion force, or rather allows it to be accomplished by objective historical forces, because he understands and incarnates the truth: “The source of this extraordinary power of penetration into the meaning of events taking place lay in that national feeling, which he bore within himself in all its purity and force.” When Napoleon’s Grande Armée was defeated, his fate is summary. “For this Russian man, as a Russian, there was nothing more to do. For the representative of the national war there was nothing left but death. And so he died.”
Nobody could be so summary about Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, 1918 to 2013, who bore within himself “national feeling . . . in all its purity and force.” Like another boxer he admired and often met, he was indisputably the greatest. Patience and time were his “mighty warriors,” more powerful than the defeated South African Defense Force. Vast spiritual and political power, strategic sense and a sense of what lies beyond strategy, a deep connection and inexplicable harmony with life, were indissolubly combined in his person.