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What Would Nelson Mandela Do?

  • Mar 23, 2010
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What would Nelson Mandela do?

Toward the end of Mandela's Way, Richard Stengel asks this question. Stengel helped Mandela write his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, in the early 1990s, and this question helped him "internalize [Mandela] and his ideas." Mandela's Way is biographical, but with a moral point. How can reflecting on the life of Nelson Mandela help us live?

The tradition of biography as moral exercise is as old as the Greeks and Romans, not to mention Jews and Christians, but it has taken new form with the uniquely American literary genre of Leadership Secrets of X, usually some famous person. When I picked up Mandela's Way, I was hoping for the older form of the tradition but worried that I would get the newer one. Few things are more aggravating than the simplification of a person's life for the purpose of making the reader a better businessman. Stengel, thankfully, did not disappoint me.

As a college student in the late 80s and early 90s, I was aware of Mandela and the struggle of the African National Congress and others to end South African apartheid. I knew little about the man, however. Mandela's Way is an excellent introduction to his life and struggle, presented thematically rather than chronologically. If one metric of a book's quality is that it inspires you to read more on the subject, then this book is quite successful.

The subtitle of Stengel's book is Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love and Courage. My guess is that Stengel's publisher came up with this verbiage, as a nod to the newer form of moral biography. The lessons are simple--"Courage is not the absence of fear," "Lead from the front," "Lead from the back," etc.--without being simplistic. The way Stengel achieves this is by rooting each lesson in the context of Mandela's life, struggle, and self-reflection.

Prison dominates the narrative. Mandela spent three decades in South African prison. It molded him as a man and as a leader. It also cost him personally in many ways. Stengel takes measure of both the good and the bad in his portrait of Mandela's life. What emerges is a man who is morally tough, politically pragmatic--except on the all-important issue of a racially just South Africa, and personally resilient. Mandela's story inspired me.

"What would Nelson Mandela do?" reflects, whether consciously or not, a phrase popularized by American evangelicals: "What would Jesus do?" As a Christian and as a pastor, what strikes me is the absence of religion in Mandela's life. He is, according to Stengel, "a materialist in the philosophical sense." He believes that there is "no destiny that shapes our end; we shape it ourselves." Of course, he aligned with religious leaders such as Bishop Desmond Tutu, but without sharing their faith. And of course, the Afrikaner architects of apartheid were the progeny of the South African Reformed churches.

Which leads to this irony: Opponents of apartheid asked "What would Nelson Mandela do?" precisely because its proponents did not ask, or did not answer rightly, "What would Jesus do?

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review by . March 09, 2010
This is hagiography, pure and simple.     The author, Richard Stengel, Managing Editor of Time Magazine, not only makes his uncritical admiration - or perhaps veneration would be the better word - absolutely clear, but goes further and labels Barack Obama "[Mandela's] true successor on the world stage" in many ways. I am not joking.     Personally I have mixed views toward Mandela. I do not doubt that he has great personal courage, but I also question his …
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George Paul Wood ()
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I'm happily married to a maximally perfect woman, and we have a baby cuter than which none can be imagined. For a living, I'm the Director of Ministerial Resourcing at AG HQ in Springfield, MO. … more
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After spending two years with Nelson Mandela collaborating on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, author and Time managing editor Stengel (You're Too Kind) felt that leaving Mandela's side "was like the sun going out of my life." In 15 compelling chapters, Stengel uses his inside perspective and more than 70 hours of taped interviews to distill wisdom from "the grandfather of South Africa," who recently turned 91, while also recounting stories from Mandela's childhood, his days as a revolutionary, his 27-year imprisonment, and his time negotiating for the country's first democratic elections. Stengel also explores Mandela's romantic relationships, including his three wives (the latest of whom, Graca Machel, he married at age 80). It's the intersection of Mandela's personal life with his part in world history that makes this portrait so vivid and compelling; indeed, the personal role he's played in Stengel's life (it was Mandela who urged Stengel to marry his wife; he became godfather to Stengel's first son) lend the volume's self-help aspects real resonance. Peeling back the many layers of Mandela's life, Stengel provides a clear view of Mandela's legacy and the lessons he has to teach.
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ISBN-10: 0307460681
ISBN-13: 978-0307460684
Author: Richard Stengel
Genre: Health, Mind & Body
Publisher: Crown Archetype
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