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Stanford Report, January 30, 2002

Nelson Mandela's sway comes from 'true charisma,' biographer says


True charisma is in short supply these days, but Nelson Mandela has it, according to Anthony Sampson, a veteran British journalist and biographer of the longtime anti-apartheid leader and first black president of South Africa.

In many cases, leaders with so-called charisma -- from Boris Yeltsin to Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe -- have shone brightly but dimmed quickly, Sampson said.

Anthony Sampson, a veteran British journalist and biographer of Nelson Mandela, spoke on campus last week. Photo: L.A. Cicero

"In fact, true charisma is something quite different from the kind of dazzle, the kind of instant appeal," he said. "True charisma leaves a much warmer and much more lasting light."

Last week Sampson gave the 2002 Harry Camp Memorial Lecture, titled "Mandela, Reconciliation and Shakespeare," at the Stanford Humanities Center. Established in 1956, the Camp lectures have brought to campus such distinguished speakers as writer Elie Wiesel (1974), who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986; historian Natalie Zemon Davis (1986); and Dr. Eric Kandel (1994), who was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

The goal of the lectures -- to promote the study of "the concept of the dignity and worth of the individual" -- could hardly be better suited to the subject of Sampson's latest book; it would be hard to argue that anyone has affected as much change in South Africa, and done so with as much dignity, as Mandela has.

But the myth of Mandela, which grew while he was in prison, outsized the actual man, and this worried Mandela, Sampson said.

"Mandela's story is so like a fairy tale in that it's very easy to become sentimental about it," he said. "He is the ultimate hero, imprisoned by the wicked witch in a dungeon, who is magically released and turns out to be a prince. It's always dangerous to get sentimental about politics, particularly in Africa. When Mandela asked me to write his biography in 1996, he particularly insisted that he wanted to be regarded as an ordinary man and portrayed in his vices as well as his virtues."

As a student at the University of Fort Hare, Mandela had an instructor who taught Shakespeare "with a vividness that made him seem particularly relevant to South Africa," Sampson said. Mandela has remained a fan of the Bard ever since.

Sampson contends that true charisma comes only from leaders who have made serious sacrifices -- sacrifices that demand respect from both enemies and friends. Mandela, in effect, put his money where his mouth is. During his opening statement at the 1964 Rivonia trial, in which he faced a sabotage charge and, if convicted, possible execution, he concluded with these words:

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Sampson recalled that when he first got to know Mandela, in the early 1950s, he was unsure whether the young firebrand could become a successful leader.

Mandela could be somewhat vain and rash, and he was too enthralled with "half-baked, Marxist ideas," Sampson said. Mandela also struck Sampson as a showman, but he was constantly growing and changing. In 1964, he asked Sampson to look over a draft of his opening statement for the Rivonia trial.

"So I had the chance to see this speech, in a draft, which revealed the extent of his development," Sampson said. What would become two of his most distinguishing traits, dignity and poise, were readily apparent.

These qualities would become even more refined during his incarceration in the notorious Robben Island prison, where he served 27 years of a life sentence. He learned to alloy his strong beliefs with patience, charm, self-discipline and an ability to forgive. He learned Afrikaans, the language of his apartheid oppressors, and made it his business to understand their culture. By the time he was released from prison in 1990, many of the warders had become his staunchest allies, and the highest government officials were bending to his political will.

The same qualities made Mandela crucial during negotiations for a multiracial democracy in South Africa. He could empathize with his enemy's position, Sampson said. He understood that Afrikaners had been oppressed by the British and humiliated in the Anglo-Boer War. The breakthrough in the negotiations came when Mandela was able to persuade the Afrikaner officials that he understood their point of view, Sampson said.

"He was a statesman, but above all a politician who knew how to get people to come along with him," Sampson said. "And now [Mandela] had a supreme advantage of a politician: No one could accuse him of selling out."

Sampson was born in 1926 and educated at Oxford University. In 1951, he went to South Africa, where he served four years as editor of Drum, a Johannesburg magazine aimed at black African readers. After returning to London, he worked for The Observer newspaper until 1962. He has written roughly 20 books, including several best-sellers translated into more than 15 languages. His award-winning Mandela: The Authorized Biography was published in 1999.