I don’t know when the outlook on History changed, but at some point people deeply interested in history stopped speaking about prominent figures, and start talking about other things that were a lot more important to the discussion: the movement of peoples and ideas. I tend to find more conform to the latter, as I am not much of a ‘big figure’ kind of person. For the most part, the second Punic war would have happened whether or not Hannibal had ever mounted an elephant. This isn’t some kind of denial of the notable figures of history, or a recognition that they had an impact, but it is something of a minimization of their significance.
There will be exceptions though. Some figures really do burn their image into the world in a way that it utterly undeniable. Nelson Mandela is one such figure.
Long Walk to Freedom is Nelson Mandela’s biography, focusing on the period of his life up until he became the president of South Africa. Take a moment to think about that description. This biography, in a respect, stops at what some people would consider the pinnacle of a person’s career. Nelson Mandela’s life was full, and that alone is something that puts life in perspective. The other notable event of Mandela’s life, his imprisonment which would last 27 years, didn’t even occur till Mandela was 41 years old.
Some time ago I read and reviewed Fidel Castro’s biography, which was awful. A comparison isn’t fair exactly, because the two figures are different in a lot of pretty important ways (in fairness, there are some intersections, such as both individuals having a skepticism of sort towards capitalism). But the comparison is necessary, if nothing else as an analysis of how historical figures go about communicating aspects of themselves to future generations. How the two go about doing this could not be more different. Castro is clearly a narcissist and interested in mythologizing himself, everything he does is great and wonderful, and at the end of it all “History will absolve me”. <s>Fidel Castro walked ten miles to school, uphill both ways, barefoot naked and bleeding, didn’t pay attention once he got there, and still came out a super genius in the style of Donald Trump</s>. By comparison, Mandela’s humility is a breath of fresh air. The book is full of his second guessing, his doubts and fears, his sacrifices and his mistakes. I was floored to read how, when visiting his mother as an adult, he recognized the selfishness of being a political figure fighting for the lives and well being of strangers as the cost of his spending time with his very own family.
Not that everything in the book is roses. It’s weird to be reading the opinions of a person who is (or at least was, in his youth) a pan-African utopists, talking about pan-African egalitarianism, and doing so while watching an African on African genocide happen in real time. Whoops. Well, that is not really a major point, and neither is it that uncommon. Despite the fact that utopianism is the express-lane to disappointment, loads of people still engage in it.
There is no mythologizing here. Mandela is perfectly comfortable being a human being like the rest of us, and as a human being, he made mistakes in the past that he regrets. I think that is what makes this read so much more acceptable than some other biographies I have read. Mandela recognizes that he is just another human. He may be a significant figure of history, but at least he is humble about it.