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The Man, The Myth, The Reading List: Nelson Mandela

Originally published on Fri December 6, 2013 6:35 pm

Growing up in apartheid South Africa with widespread state censorship, it was hard to get to know our political leaders. The first time I actually saw a photograph of Nelson Mandela was in high school in the mid-1980s.

A braver classmate had managed to sneak a few grainy images into our school — a full-face, younger Mandela, his fellow Robben Island inmate Walter Sisulu and the South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo.

We knew bits and pieces about the history of the struggle against white supremacy in our country, since apartheid-era history textbooks told only the manifest destiny-like tale of white settler triumph and the "statesmanship" of figures like the mid-century Prime Minister Jan Smuts.

So, the years since the end of apartheid meant catching up on our own history. After I came to the U.S. in 1995 to study at Northwestern University, I spent my Friday afternoons in the library, watching films that had been banned in South Africa.

And I familiarized myself especially with the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. He is the most recognizable figure in 20th century South African history — and perhaps one of the most recognizable in world history, which I learned was the result of a conscious propaganda campaign on the part of the African National Congress in the 1970s to sway Western public opinion — in addition to Mandela's own talents and charisma.

Since Mandela's release from prison in 1990 the myths and stories about him have grown, through many narratives constructed by journalists and the numerous films made about him and the many books written about his life. But these three, I think, provide a good introduction to this remarkable man, who always insisted that he was part of a larger struggle and a movement.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Censorship during apartheid meant that many South Africans grew up knowing little about Nelson Mandela. Sean Jacobs was one of those denied Mandela's words. As part of our series This Week's Must Read, Professor Jacobs recommends Mandela's autobiography: "Long Walk to Freedom."

SEAN JACOBS, BYLINE: It's a book that a lot of people are talking about today, but I want to tell you why it was particularly important for me. I grew up in apartheid South Africa. The state censored everything, and it was hard to get to know our political leaders. I couldn't even see a photo of Mandela until I was in high school in the '80s.

We knew bits and pieces about the history of our country, including the struggle against white supremacy, but the only stories in our textbooks were about white settlers and people like Jan Smuts, a famous white prime minister. This didn't teach me anything about my own surroundings. I lived in a township where there was always violence. There were funerals all the time.

And I used to go with my dad to his work. He worked as a gardener for a white judge. And I remember coming back and telling my mother about how green it was there, compared to our world where things were crammed, drab and wet.

So the years after apartheid I had to catch up on my own history and the history of Nelson Mandela, and that meant reading his reading his autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom."

It's probably the most accessible book about his life. It charts his regal upbringing, career as a lawyer, his troubled marriages, and then it gets into the story of his time in prison, then his release and finally his election in 1994 as South Africa's first democratically chosen president. It's an incredible story.

But even more revealing is the book's sequel. "Conversations With Myself" is less triumphant and more introspective. It includes this passage, which I think captures Mandela, who always insisted that he was part of a larger struggle and a movement. One issue that deeply worried me in prison, he writes, was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint. I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.

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SIEGEL: That was Sean Jacobs, a professor at the New School in New York and founder of the blog Africa is a Country.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.