What More is There to Learn About Nelson Mandela?

December 2, 2013



By Danny Schechter

Nelson Mandela is back in the news—happily, not because of his medical condition but thanks to the release of the new epic movie, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom starring Idris Elba and Naomi Harris. On Christmas day, it opens nationwide on 2000 screens with a majority of reviews very positive.

At the same time, no one movie can hope to tell the full story of a life that has spanned 95 years.  Hollywood-style story-telling inevitably telescopes history, compresses characters, and seek to entertain more than inform

Some of the critics make this point, A few  find it too rushed, others too long, or well on missing context, and insufficient history, as does Simon Abrams on Roger ”The prison guard insists that Nelson and his wife should not talk about politics, and “Long Walk to Freedom’s creators honor that request. Instead, they talk about how they feel about politics. So the raised tone of Winnie’s voice is more important than the content of her words.”

Critical debates aside, many can agree with the LA Times’ conclusion: “This may be a familiar story, but it is one worth experiencing again and again. “ And, that’s why the AP added, “This is the perfect time for youngsters (or their elders) who don’t know enough about the man to go learn about him.”

And that’s also precisely why the film’s producers asked me to draw on many of the interviews I did for a companion documentary series on the making and meaning of Long Walk to Freedom for a book that can tell some of  the rest of the story about “the many faces of Nelson Mandela.” It’s called Madiba A to Z  (Seven Stories Press) and is out here, and in South Africa.

To supplement Mandela’s own autobiography and the many biographies about them, I look at what insiders know but many in the adoring public do not. Quite a few who know him well are loving but critical (and self-critical), most deeply aware of the limits of the changes in South Africa almost twenty years after the end of apartheid and the coming of democracy.

I spoke to many key players and insiders including two former presidents, DeKlerk and Mbeki and Deputy President Motlanthe, his prison comrades and fellow ANC activists including Archbishop Tutu, as well as thoughtful writers like Nadine Gordimer and Njabullo Ndebele.

Here are some highlights from a book that features intimate stories on 26 aspects of Mandela’s life and times.

  • The key finding is how many of the “stalwarts” of the struggle including Mandela himself are privately disappointed with the “progress” that’s been made and have “regrets” with the ANC’s many failures in a way we haven’t seen before.
  • Thabo Mbeki tells me that the problems of South Africa have not changed very much from 1994 because of the greed of the white business community and its failure to invest in job creation
  • Madiba A to Z reveals that there were secret economic negotiations alongside the televisied political talks that allowed the World Bank and global business leaders, especially Americans to limit what South Africa could do to regulate business and fight poverty. This is what led to the neo-liberal policies South Africa was pressured to adopt.
  • •The armed struggle fought by the ANC’s guerilla army Umkhonto we Size was aided by the Vietnamese army after the defeat of the U.S. led war. The Cuban defeat of South African military forces in Angola helped spur the transition.
  • While Mandela deserves credit for engineering a peaceful political settlement it was external pressure including economic and cultural sanctions demanded by a global anti-apartheid movement that brought decisive pressure on political leaders to negotiate. His law partner, Oliver Tambo’s role as ANC leader was probably more decisive when Mandela was behind bars.
  • While Mandela was hailed by a cheering world for his iconic role, he was often personally miserable because of the break-up of his marriage and the internal battles inside the ANC.

These are just a few of the disclosures in a book dealing with Mandela as villager, bully, boxer, prisoner, Lover and womanizer, peacemaker and legend, Throughout his political struggles, he rejected the idea that he was a “savior” and always embraced collective leadership even as the Media lionized him and treated him as a celebrity.

What emerges is a portrait of a man, and a troubled nation as well as the texture of a struggle that, despite many gains,  is still fighting for true freedom. After his release from prison, Mandela was told, “Well now you’re free.” And he said: “No, we’re freed to be free.”

More news about the book and its author, including a selection, can be found at

News dissector Danny Schechter directed six documentaries about Nelson Mandela. He blogs at and edits, Comments to

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