If you’re under age 40 or so, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa from the 1950s to the 1990s probably seems like ancient history. But to those of us who lived through those times and followed the news with interest, the South African story loomed large. Nelson Mandela was, simply, the most famous person in the world in the 1980s and 90s, and almost certainly the most widely admired. His release from prison after 27 years in February 1990 was witnessed on television by a global audience comparable to that of the World Cup Finals. Mandela’s election as South Africa’s first Black president was celebrated around the world.
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
Kenneth Bonert’s captivating thriller, The Mandela Plot, is grounded in the years of the late 1980s, shortly before South Africa’s State President F. W. de Klerk invited Nelson Mandela to tea in 1989, beginning the long effort to dismantle the apartheid regime. The action comes to a head many years later, long after Mandela’s five years of service as de Klerk’s successor ended in 1999. Although the book is a little slow on the uptake, the suspense builds steadily, and the closing chapters are shattering.
The Mandela Plot by Kenneth Bonert (2018) 481 pages ★★★★★
A Jewish high school boy named Martin Helger is the protagonist of this deeply engaging story. Martin’s father, Isaac, is a rough-hewn Lithuanian immigrant who owns and operates an automobile scrap yard. His older brother, Marcus, is an outstanding athlete who “did the unthinkable—maybe the unforgivable—and joined the army.” Both sons attend an elite Jewish boys’ school, where Martin finds not long after Marcus has left that his brother can no longer protect him from the upper-class bullies who torment him. But real trouble starts when a young American Jewish woman named Annie Goldberg moves into the Helger home as a guest. We soon learn that Annie is not just an elementary-school teacher in one of the rough Black townships but a revolutionary activist who has come to assist Mandela’s African National Congress. Martin inadvertently becomes caught up in Annie’s work, and therein lies the tale.
For related reading
Previously, I’ve reviewed several good novels about Africa:
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, reviewed at African Roots through African eyes
- Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie, reviewed at Love, loss, and war in post-independence Africa
- Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah, reviewed at In Ishmael Beah’s novel, hope lives on in the depths of hell
- Assegai by Wilbur Smith, reviewed at An historical novel set in East Africa early in the 20th Century
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