February 13, 1995 12:00 PM

by Nelson Mandela

Every picture of South African President Nelson Mandela shows dignity personified. Raised to be the adviser to his tribal king, he grew up to be the national “king” and an international symbol of triumph over evil.

Dignity, however, is what weighs down this mammoth autobiography. Emotion rarely breaks through, appearing only in the joy of gardening in prison and his sadness at the death of African National Congress leader Oliver Tambo.

Even Mandela’s fretting over his decision to sacrifice family life for public life is bloodless. There’s nothing new about his second wife, Winnie, and when he discusses serious conflicts between the ANC and other black organizations, the rage that slips through is relatively minimal.

Mandela was in prison for 27 years for being a leader of the banned ANC and the founder of its army. In prison he continued his fight against apartheid by whatever means possible, while private life went on without him (his mother and eldest son died, grandchildren were born, and Winnie was bullied and imprisoned). The government became more and more repressive. Violence between blacks and whites escalated.

But most of the book details Mandela’s life before and after prison. Perhaps there’s little one can say about life during such a long incarceration—it’s a tale of stamina. But other famous prisoners, such as Natan Sharansky, infused their prison memoirs with inspirational elements lacking here.

This is less a memoir than a political history of modern South Africa, told by a master politician. Readers. will learn much but won’t find the media Mandela who has previously touched their hearts. (Little, Brown,$24.95).

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