Dare Not Linger is both autobiography and biography, being started by Nelson Mandela and completed by Mandla Langa, a fêted writer and journalist.

On its own, political autobiography is a tricky genre. The lure of first-person revelations about great historical moments must be offset against the knowledge that politicians primarily write their life stories to deliver a first draft of history that flatters them.

In an authorised biography, these pitfalls are added to by the fact that no-one would choose to have their legacy interpreted by anyone but a carefully vetted acolyte. Moreover, there are also the obvious difficulties of writing critically about the life of Mandela, the world’s first secular saint.

The book was intended by Mandela to be the sequel to Long Walk to Freedom, the enormously successful record of his earlier life that culminated with his 1994 release from prison after 27 years. It was started in 1998 and in her prologue, Graça Machel tells how for four years the project, recounting his presidential years, loomed large in his life.

"He wrote painstakingly, with his fountain pen or ballpoint, awaited comments from trusted associates, then rewrote and rewrote ... every step was marked by a commitment to consultation." Add to such a laborious approach the factors of age and the demands of the world, and it is not surprising that eventually the manuscript lay dormant.

A full 25 years later, Langa — a trusted cadre of the ANC and its armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe — completed the book, drawing from Mandela’s unfinished memoir, the great man’s personal notes, speeches and secondary material, mainly the published work of Mandela’s comrades. There was also input from Mandela’s former advisers Joel Netshitenzhe and Tony Trew, who provided "analysis and preliminary narrativisation". The enterprise was supported by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and, rather peculiarly, with funding from the Industrial Development Corp.

Inevitably, then, there is some glossing over of reality. For example, the narrative is insistent that no blame accrues to Mandela or the ANC for the Shell House massacre, when security guards at the party’s Johannesburg headquarters opened fire on IFP marchers, killing 19 people (not nine, as the book mistakenly claims).

Instead, the blame is laid at the door of the IFP for being provocative and of President FW de Klerk for not putting up roadblocks, despite a warning from Mandela that people would die. The findings of the Nugent commission of inquiry, which rejected the ANC’s argument that the shootings were justified, do not rate even a mention.

Between the lines

Similarly, the KwaZulu Natal violence was apparently all the fault of the IFP. And every stutter in the democracy negotiating process was entirely the fault of the National Party. The ANC, in contrast, had "an unerring political instinct ... guided by principle".

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is entirely inadvertent, the product of reading between the lines. It is the subtle reminders that abound of the humanity of Madiba before he was canonised by an uncritical media: he could be querulous, stubborn and bossy to the margins of autocracy.

Take the ANC’s cherished commitment to nationalisation, a basic tenet of its policy platform stretching all the way back to the Freedom Charter, which was jettisoned in a heartbeat by Mandela. After discussions with the premiers of China and Vietnam, who advised against it, Mandela simply told the ANC team negotiating the transition to "forget this nationalisation thing". They did as they were told.

Dare Not Linger is pretty much an ANC-authorised history. Or rather, a version of history authorised by the old guard of the ANC, which, admittedly, at least has the benefit of being informed by the vision of a man whose nonracial and determinedly inclusive legacy is unravelling in the face of growing black nationalism, radicalisation and a spirit of petty vengefulness.

In 1994, the freshly minted SA democracy had the world at its feet, with the international community leaning over backwards to assist and with a previously intransigent white community quickly and utterly seduced by Madiba magic. Here lies the value of the book, taking us back to a moment in our history when, under inspired leadership, all seemed possible.

How far away that moment seems now.

William Saunderson-Meyer @TheJaundicedEye

Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years; by Nelson Mandela and Mandla Langa. Macmillan

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