This is hardly the first serious biography of Mandela. There are already two 'authorised' biographies, both by friends of his, writers belonging to the same generation as their subject. Fatima Meer's Higher than Hope was researched and written in the late 1980s and published in 1988.1 Anthony Sampson's Mandela was published in 1999.2 Martin Meredith's equally perceptive and detailed treatment of Mandela's life appeared in 1997.3 This book draws upon these writers' work substantially, as well as using the same kinds of primary sources: correspondence, Mandela's own writings, interviews, and memoirs, court documents, and contemporary press reportage. My first acknowledgements should therefore be to Fatima Meer, Anthony Sampson, and Martin Meredith. Their work will continue to represent essential foundations for any future assessments of Mandela's career.
How is my treatment of Mandela's life different from theirs? It is different in several ways. First of all, my understanding of Mandela's childhood and youth is, I think, more complicated than in the other narratives about his beginnings. Mandela's childhood was unusual because of his early departure from his mother's household and his subsequent upbringing as the ward of a royal regent. Mandela's emotional self-control as a personality, as well as his receptiveness to new ideas, is, I think, attributable to his upbringing in highly institutionalised settings. Both at court and at school, Mandela absorbed principles of etiquette and chivalry that remained important precepts through his public life. They were principles that were reinforced by a sophisticated literary culture that fused heroic African oral traditions with Victorian concepts of honour, propriety, and virtue. From his boyhood, Mandela's life was shaped by ideas or values that were shared by rather than dividing his compatriots, black and white. In this context, the absence in his early life of intimidating or humiliating encounters with white people is significant, and, to an extent, distinguishes his childhood from many other black South African childhoods.