Racism throws a cloak of invisibility over its subjects. In South Africa, apartheid was designed to deny the presence of tens of millions of blacks, Asians, and even white opponents of the Afrikaner regime. An entire nation of nonpeople was created to defend the privilege and dominion of the ''white tribe.''
Nelson Mandela, who for more than 27 years was banned, imprisoned, and locked in a kind of Orwellian memory hole, was perhaps the most famous invisible man in the world. And then on a February morning, in one of those rare world-historical moments when in a flash everything changes, he burst into visibility. The reality of an elderly, compassionate, disciplined, and measured statesman in a conservative suit replaced the attenuated memories of a young revolutionary lawyer in guerrilla khakis. His short, triumphal walk out of Victor Verster Prison was accompanied by exuberant rejoicing and more than a few tears. Hope, too, came out of prison that day.In Higher Than Hope, Fatima Meer peels away layer after layer of the veil that apartheid had placed over Mandela. Herself a sometimes banned person and an associate of Mandela's in ''the Cause'' for four decades, Meer brings a sociologist's eye, a historian's mind, and a comrade's heart to her task. She was denied access to the prisoner from 1972 until one day last May, after the publication of the South African edition of the book, when the authorities allowed her to visit him. In three subsequent sessions 18 hours in all biographer and subject pored over the text, revising, elaborating, and personalizing Mandela's story.
The result is a detailed, intensely political, but richly human accounting not only of one man's life but of a painfully long struggle that is still far from finished. Listening to Mandela's relatives and childhood friends describe his upbringing in a traditional Thembu village in what is now the fictitious ''homeland'' of Transkei is like traveling back to a place before recorded time. Mandela's sister, Nomabandla, speaks: ''Our father's great-grandfather was King Ngubengcuka... He ruled over all the Thembus at a time when the and belonged to them and they were free. Our father was a chief but was subsequently deposed [by the British, who had conquered the land] for insubordination. He rode a horse and had enough cattle to marry four wives... We lived with our mother in her three rondavels. There was no furniture...that is, no European furniture. We slept on mats, without pillows, resting our heads on our elbows. Our mother's 'stove' was a hole in the ground over which she put a grate... There was a time, our mother said, when we did not have to buy mealie meal.''
Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, called ''Buti,'' left his mother's kraal when he was 10 and went to live with an uncle, a chief. Thirteen years later, in 1941, he came to Johannesburg or, more accurately, to the nearby black township of Alexandra. The white city was off-limits to Africans. But in crucial ways, the kraal with its beauty and its pain is still in his soul. The wrenching transformations of urban industrial life only sharpened his will to free his land and live according to the warm and nurturing communal values of his village.
At once he found the Cause and joined it. While practicing law, he began organizing campaigns of defiance against the ''color bar'' dictated by a supposedly liberal white government. When the rigid nationalists swept into power in 1948 and imposed apartheid, Mandela's methods grew correspondingly militant. The ANC was banned and its leaders were convinced that only armed defiance could loosen the Afrikaners' hold. Mandela became the chief architect of the ANC's military arm, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation.
He went underground in South Africa and traveled throughout the continent seeking support. And then, while posing as a chauffeur, he was found by the police. The newspapers screamed the news: ''Black Pimpernel'' under arrest. Like his father, he was deposed for insubordination. His trials, his prison term, and his extraordinary success in negotiating his own release and political rights for the ANC while in captivity are the stuff of legend. Now the truths of his life can be told, and an awestruck world may begin to understand how a hero has been made. A