Visions of Mandela by Amy Nicholson

Mandela and the General
By John Carlin
Illustrated by Oriol Malet
Plough, 2018
$19.95   105 pp.

It’s always impossible until it’s done.
– Nelson Mandela

Mandela and the General was born of a conversation between author John Carlin and General Constand Viljoen at a bar in Cape Town, South Africa, years after the events in the book took place. Carlin served in Johannesburg as foreign correspondent for the Independent of London from 1989 to 1995. During the same time, Viljoen was a retired military general who led a group of Afrikaners who opposed Nelson Mandela and his vision for a democratized South Africa.

Viljoen told Carlin of his upbringing, his family with its opposing ideological views, and his successful military career defending his homeland against Communism. In 1985, at the height of his career, Viljoen retired and went back to the family farm. He would soon find, however, that his military leadership was far from over. On February 11, 1990, Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. This event, coupled with rising racial tension and an increase in Black militancy, caused Viljoen and thousands of other Afrikaners to fear Mandela. Many whites believed that if Mandela gained power, he would expel them from their land, close their churches, kill their language, and even have them hanged in retaliation for his imprisonment and the poor treatment of Blacks during apartheid. Longing to protect themselves, they sought to establish a separate white homeland.

Retaliation, though, was not what Mandela had in mind. Despite the anger of both Blacks and whites and violence erupting all around him, he spoke words of peace at his rallies, emphasizing that “We must strive to find a political solution that reconciles white fears with black aspirations.” But whites only became more fearful as the government ceded to more and more of Mandela’s demands. They asked Viljoen to lead them. He agreed, but would soon find the group to be more aggressive than he was comfortable with. In fact, he found himself acting as peacemaker between the Afrikaners and the police and worked to prevent further violence. Mandela sent word to Viljoen that he wanted to meet with him in secret to discuss peace negotiations. In what would become a pivotal moment, Viljoen did meet with Mandela in his home. Both men agreed to seek peaceful reconciliation between their people who had been at odds for so long.

Mandela and the general continued to meet discreetly, and each man returned to the leadership of his respective group to debrief them on their plans for peace. After much discussion on both sides and a bloody conflict between the two groups on March 11, 1994, Viljoen realized war would be futile. The Afrikaners were outnumbered. Mandela managed to win Viljoen over, and the general agreed to call off the armed struggle and participate in the new democratic elections. The impossible was coming to fruition. Apartheid ended. On May 10, 1994, Nelson Mandela, the man who had been imprisoned for opposing the government, was elected president of South Africa.

Author John Carlin and illustrator Oriol Malet choose to tell this incredible story in the form of a graphic novel. At first, I was a bit skeptical of the format, particularly with such weighty material. Aren’t illustrated volumes for children? I wondered. I would soon learn how wrong I was. Just as Mandela’s dream for South Africa was born a new mindset, so Carlin and Malet’s decision to portray the events visually offer the reader a new way of seeing and therefore conceiving of history.

Had I been introduced to a book like Mandela and the General when I was younger—perhaps even as a college student, when a professor used an uninspiring textbook to teach about apartheid—I would have been drawn to works of history and biography much sooner. As it happened, it wasn’t until I was several years out of college that I began to take a genuine interest in things that happened in other places and times. Not only did Mandela and the General fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of this monumental period, but it gave me hope that young people today might come to be excited about history at an earlier age than I was.

In truth, this book is for all of us. Older folks will pick it up because it adds to our understanding of Nelson Mandela, and is told in a far more appealing way than the standardized textbooks we grew up with. Younger people will be intrigued by its visual presentation. Although it’s brimming with information, it is clear and concise. Accessible books like this whet the appetite of readers who will want to learn more. To this end, Carlin appends two of his long-form articles from the Independent as well as a timeline to the end of the book.

Oriol Malet’s illustrations serve their purpose beautifully. They dramatically convey the intensity surrounding this series of events in South Africa’s history. In fact, conveying the story visually may bring readers closer to the heart of what was happening. As another illustrator, Rebecca Fish Ewan, says of graphic novels: “You don’t have to render it real; render it the truth.” Anger, pain, violence, sadness, joy, victory—it all comes through in the careful lines and deliberate shadows of Malet’s art. The facial expressions are exquisite, exuding emotion. His choice of when to zoom in and when to place a person in a broader setting is effective, and allows for the reader to easily follow who’s speaking.

Carlin and Malet have created a truly memorable account of an indelible moment. It is fitting that such an unconventional approach would be used to present this boundary-breaking event. Kudos to both of them for making it accessible to a wide audience that can learn from, and be inspired by, Mandela’s example.

Amy Nicholson hopes to encourage and inspire others through her writing. She has been published in Country Woman, The Old Schoolhouse, The Lookout, and other publications. In addition to writing and discovering grace in ordinary places, Amy substitute teaches. Visit her at: www.amynicholson14.wordpress.com.

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