In 1964, Nelson Mandela, facing the capital charge of sabotage in a Pretoria court, stood to address the judge who would decide his fate. Over the next five hours, Mandela did not deny the most serious charges against him but tried to explain why his actions were necessary. Nearing the end of his speech, Mandela put down his notes and spoke from memory:
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and see realized. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela did not die. Based on the evidence against him, and on South African legal precedent, he easily could have hanged. Indeed, Mandela prepared a statement to read when his death sentence was announced. Instead, he was sentenced, along with seven of his 10 co-defendants, to life in prison. He therefore survived to guide his country out of apartheid’s darkness and into a much more hopeful future.
This book is about the trial that made such a future possible—that, in the author’s words, “saved the lives of Mandela and his co-defendants and, ultimately, the very soul of their country.” Had South Africa executed these men, he says, “it would have struck a blow against life and dignity from which South Africa, and the world, might not have recovered.”
Broun’s description promises an epic story. What he delivers is something much more modest. The characters involved, including Mandela himself, are thinly drawn. The trial’s significance is declared rather than demonstrated. This isn’t to say it’s a bad book. History doesn’t need to be panoramic to be good. Broun narrows his focus on one trial and gives it the careful analysis he thinks it deserves. His writing is clear and restrained. The reader finishes satisfied but hardly swept away.