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The long walk home;Book of the week

MANDELA: the Authorised Biography. By Anthony Sampson HarperCollins. pound;24.99.

He may be one of the great political icons of this century, but Nelson Mandela's biography shows that he is human too, writes Tom Deveson.

Countless children have been taken to see the monumental bust of Nelson Mandela outside the Royal Festival Hall in London. It conveys the image of a superhuman hero.

Anthony Sampson's biography might have been cast in a similar mould, but for all its weightiness, it is shaped with subtlety and discrimination. What emerges from its 670 pages is sometimes a myth - but always a man.

Sampson has the inestimable advantage not only of access to 25 years of Mandela's prison letters and unpublished writing, but also of nearly 50 years of friendship with his subject.

For young people to whom Mandela stands for courage, generosity and integrity and for their teachers - even their older teachers - it will be instructive to remember that Mandela was fighting for his people's rights long before they were born. And Sampson has much of interest to tell about Mandela's early life. He gives vivid sketches of what it was like to be a country boy in the twenties and thirties, raised in the proud traditions of Xhosa oral history, supplemented by the observances of his Methodist education.

We see the boy Rolihlahla - he wasn't called Nelson till he was seven - moving between two of the several languages he would need in his later negotiations. There's a glimpse of him acting the part of John Wilkes Booth, who murdered the man that signed the slaves' Emancipation Proclamation. We are shown the early importance of strong women in his life.

His princeliness, too, is given context. Raised in a royal milieu, he would later show the same self-assurance before history as Churchill and De Gaulle.

Mandela's convictions were rooted in moral certainty, but Sampson shows with affection and insight how he had to learn humility - his colleague Oliver Tambo was a more natural democrat. This is biography, not hagiography.

What, then, of the saintly figure revered and displayed in classrooms? His rapport with children has often been used for political advantage, and makes a happy contrast to the estrangements - not shirked in Sampson's account - he underwent with his own family. Mandela himself likes to tell stories of being put down by children, such as the one about the five-year-old girl who asked why he spent so long in jail. "You must be a very stupid old man," she said after he explained.

But of course Mandela's passionate political intelligence is what must lie at the heart of this biography. Sampson is a sure-footed guide among the acronyms of countless groups and parties and sects. He is an authoritative and perspicacious escort through the sectarian debates, the cabals and treacheries that made up South African politics for 50 years. What emerges is a sense of the intense loyalty Mandela and his closest associates Sisulu and Tambo maintained to one another through decades of prison and exile - and the way white nationalists became the captives of a system they hoped would ensure their dominance.

Jail was a university for Mandela and the other prisoners, who learned how to win organisational and intellectual ascendancy over their guards, as well as the negotiating skills later needed to build a nation. Many a classroom argument about the relevance of Shakespeare could be silenced by reading the extraordinarily interesting account of how his works became a shared text between them for intensive reflection. Mandela's own citation from Julius Caesar, "Cowards die many times before their death", is moving and instructive.

Sampson faces his final challenge in recounting how the campaign for the release of the world's most famous prisoner led to his elevation to the presidency, and he meets it with skill and aplomb. The increasingly complex discussions which Mandela undertook from his cell, keeping in touch with Zulu nationalism and ANC in exile while hiding enough of his position from his allies so as not to jeopardise his policy's ultimate success - these wranglings are recounted with great clarity.

During that time, Mandela and de Klerk both moved in attitude between rage, diplomacy and a desire for conciliation. There is a fiercely dramatic chapter where the details of discussion become the stuff of world drama, and we are taken through breath-taking sequences of events, where failure could mean chaos, civil war and the bloodshed predicted (and even anticipated) by many commentators.

The book goes up to early 1999. Having fought his very first election almost at the age at which Gladstone was fighting his last, the "Grand Old Man" is seen renouncing power for marriage and retirement.

The long walk of this book won't tire readers. By the end they have got to know not a saint, but a symbol - and one who is inspirational and wholly human.

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