A belated happy birthday, President Rolihlala “Nelson” Mandela!
Pushkin Press has commemorated his life by publishing The Black Pimpernel: Nelson Mandela on the Run, a chapter book by Zukiswa Wanner with captivating black and white, comic book style illustrations by Amerigo Pinelli. This is the latest installment of the publisher’s True Adventures series of historical fiction for ages 8-12.
For those who don’t know the anti-apartheid struggle icon, perhaps you’ve heard of Mandela Day, 67 Minutes or the freedom fighter who was imprisoned for 27 years and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize upon his release? This year, our great ancestor would have turned 103 years old. Every year on July 18th, his birthday, people all over the world are encouraged to follow his example by engaging in good deeds for a minimum of 67 minutes; one minute for every year of his life of service.
Joining the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943, Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically-elected president in 1994 and retired from public life in 2010. He dedicated 67 years of his life to advancing the South African notion of non-racialism and an equal world for all. Non-racialism means the rejection of race as a scientific fact in opposition to Apartheid ideology which believed in upholding white supremacy in every facet of life.
Wanner, who was recently awarded the Goethe Medal by the German government for “outstanding service…for international cultural relations”, previously co-authored a Nelson Mandela biography/photography book for adults and has now expertly transformed a slice of Mandela’s life on the run into a gripping story of suspense and endurance for young readers.
In The Black Pimpernel, Wanner presents the story of Nelson Mandela as one of the ANC’s leaders as well as a loving father and committed husband to Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela. She shows how Mandela’s family and comrades provided him with the strength to continue with his efforts to liberate the country at a time when the Apartheid police were baying for his blood and the public was losing faith in the principle of non-violence amidst unrelenting state brutality. Readers follow Mandela’s adventures in the early 1960s as the ANC compels him to go underground and establish military resistance against the state, making him the most wanted man in Apartheid South Africa. Wanner explains how this period earned him the nickname that is also the title of the book:
These same newspapers have now given him the name the Black Pimpernel, after the fictional hero of Baroness Orczy’s novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel. It amuses Nelson as much as it annoys him. Therein lies the racism of this country, even among newspapers that consider themselves liberal. To them, he can’t just be Nelson Mandela of South Africa. He has to be a black version of something white for them to make sense of it. Of him.
With the topic of racial inequality being the great subtext of the book, Wanner is able to guide the reader in and out of the minds of both black and white characters with much empathy, showing the complexities of being differently situated in a racially segregated South Africa. One can feel the pressure that Sergeant Vorster is under; the white policeman must answer to his powerful uncle for constantly being outwitted by Mandela. One can also feel some admiration for Sergeant Maxwell Levy Marwa, a black policeman who would ordinarily be regarded as a traitor for collaborating with the state. Here, Wanner humanizes him and allows him some flickers of heroism.
The Black Pimpernel is divided into 14 chapters plus exciting back matter consisting of an epilogue, a historical timeline, a section titled “a little more about Nelson Mandela’s world” elaborating on South Africanisms, a glossary and additional resources for educators.
The informative book delivers an impactful adventure story and highlights the ideals of equality and justice at the heart of Mandela’s mission: “His children, all children, are too beautiful to grow up in an abnormal society like this one. He doesn’t know whether he will ever be able to secure their freedom but he will die fighting to do so.”
*Review copy of The Black Pimpernel: Nelson Mandela on the Run was kindly provided by the publisher. Read more about them on our Publisher’s Spotlight.
Written by Zukiswa Wanner
Illustrated by Amerigo Pinelli
Pushkin Press, 2021
Page count: 160
Lebohang Masango is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology, an award-winning children’s author and poet. Her debut, Mpumi’s Magic Beads is translated in all 11 official South African languages and has been awarded a South African Literature Award, among others. Her other titles include Grow to be Great: Awesome African Achievers, co-authored with Dr Judy Dlamini, and Mpumi and Jabu’s Magical Day, co-authored with Professor Claudine Storbeck. She tweets at @lebohangwrites.