Review by E. Kirshe
Mandela and The General focuses on one stitch in Nelson Mandela’s legacy. In 1994, as the first post-Apartheid elections approach, and black South Africans are ready to take power with Mandela as their president, a militant faction of white South Africans – the Freedom Front – are ready to riot and fight to the death if need be. Attempting to avert a massacre Mandela held a series of secret meetings with Constand Viljoen- a former general of the South African army and later leader of the right-wing Freedom Front party.
“We must strive to find a political solution that reconciled White fears with black aspirations.”
As leaders of opposing factions they have the pull to keep their people from becoming violent and through reason, Mandela convinces Viljoen to reel his people in, to create true peace and not “the peace of graveyards.”
The book is told mainly through Viljoen’s recollections pulled from an interview author John Carlin conducted with him. The focus is on Viljoen, how he agreed to head the “white resistance”, how his twin brother helped broker the talks, and how Viljoen ultimately came to think of Mandela as “the greatest of men”. The story also serves to underpin what made Mandela capable of fostering this respect even from an enemy.
In talks with Viljoen, Mandela leads with empathy. He says he could imagine what it’s like to be Viljoen, where he is coming from, and that they both are men who love their country. According to Mandela himself, people from his side thought he was a traitor to reach out to people who hate them. But, as he says, the results speak for themselves, and there would have been no other path to peace
It’s strange reading this book now especially since these events are only about 25 years old. Though the book only captures a small part of this raging historical time period it’s honestly somewhat hopeful for our own polarized political times.
The artwork by Oriol Malet is simple (there’s maybe six colors in this whole book) and expressive- his images don’t need words to land a moment and often don’t use any. Yet his imagery splashed across the General’s words brought the narration to life.
Mandela and the General serves as a simple yet important read. Bridges are built between people who are out for blood, this is no small thing. A potential massacre was averted by Mandela using empathy, reason, and respect, on a South African white supremacist who enforced Apartheid. The two worked together on the shared cause of building a better nation. This would likely be good for young readers to digest but honestly, there are a lot of people of all ages who should see this message. Bending does not mean that you are breaking. Other people, even vile ones, aren’t going anywhere so you might have to work with them to avoid a standstill, or worse.
Mandela and the General is a concisely well-told and illustrated read that also shows the humanity necessary in navigating a tumultuous political field.
Mandela and the General is available now from Plough Publishing House
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.