4 April 2003
There was a glittering audience of several hundred guests at the recent launch of Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime.
The main speaker was former President Nelson Mandela, who left soon after his speech because he was scheduled to address another glittering audience at still another launch of yet another biography of a struggle stalwart, the late Ismail Meer, at the opposite end of town.
Biographies of struggle heroes are becoming a growth industry. There are various editions, for example, of “Long Walk to Freedom”, Mandela’s biography: one can find it in one volume or two, illustrated or not, hardback or softcover, complete or condensed.
The Sisulu biography, written by daughter-in-law Elinor Sisulu, and A Fortunate Man, the Meer autobiography, finished after his death by his wife and children, are only the latest in this publishing phenomenon.
Letlapa Mphahlele’s controversial Child of This Soil recounts the life of a freedom fighter, living in the bush and carrying on even after his organisation called for an end to armed struggle.
Bandiet Out of Jail by Hugh Lewin is an update of an earlier struggle book with recollections of life in prison; the original book was banned during the apartheid era for the light it shed on prison conditions.
Other prison biographies include “Voices from Robben Island”, featuring recollections from a number of famous ex-political prisioners, and “Reflections in Prison”, biographical sketches of some famous ex-Robben Island inmates. The classic “Island in Chains” by Indres Naidoo dates back to the 1960s.
Women too spent time in jail. “Convictions: A Woman Political Prisoner Remembers”, by Jean Middleton, is a quirky look at prison life by a white, middle-class woman, while “Prison Diaries” is based on a diary kept by Fatima Meer, widow of Ismail Meer, a decade later.
Back to the present, a biography of feisty politician Patricia de Lille has been written by unsinkable journalist Charlene Smith – a happy conjunction of biographer and subject.
Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog can be classified as a struggle biography because it tracks so many stories told to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as describing the deleterious effect covering the commission had on heretofore hardened journalists.
The Essential Steve Biko includes, among essays by the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, pieces by people who knew him well. And Fischer’s Choice: A Life of Bram Fisher by Martin Meredith is the latest biography of the Afrikaner advocate who defended resistence leaders in court before being imprisoned himself.
“Our generation is fast disappearing”, Mandela said at the launch of the Sisulu book. But with more and more struggle biographies filling the shelves of bookshops and libraries, they are leaving behind a considerable legacy in print.
His career tracked the progress of the liberation struggle among South African Indians. Like his wife, Fatima Meer, he spent time in prison, but that did not dampen his enthusiasm for the struggle, and he was prominent in civil disobedience, including the South African Indian Congress’s 1946 passive resistance campaign.
Mandela described Meer as “a man of great integrity, both in his personal life and his political thinking”. The families were close; the Mandela children stayed with the Meers when they studied in Durban.
When he died at the age of 82, his autobiography was not completed: but his wife and daughters have finished the tale of a man who fellow political ex-prisoner Ahmed Kathrada said was “more than an individual – he was an institution . His life was closely interwoven with numerous landmark events in the liberation struggle, and with the leaders and activists connected with those events.”
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