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6Dec

Nelson Mandela: Conversations With Myself (Feature)

Much has been written and said about Nelson Mandela, one of the world’s most iconic figures of our time. Hence, you cannot help but ask what his newly published book, Conversations With Myself, could possibly tell us, which we did not already know.  Well, perhaps this, “One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint. I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Conversations With MyselfConversations With Myself is a collection of – letters, diaries, journals, unpublished manuscripts from prison, meeting notes, interviews, recorded conversations and the unfinished sequel to his autobiography – from his personal archive, we get privy access into his most intimate thoughts, emotions, family life and political views, even his sex life. It is Madiba in his own words.  So, what do we stand to discover in this poignant collection? Take this for an entrée:

“Once again, our beloved mummy has been arrested and now she and daddy are away in jail…

The moving words of a father as he addresses his daughters upon the arrest of their mother, doing his best to calm their fears, reassure them and reaffirm his wife’s strength to get through her ordeal. This is from a letter Nelson Mandela wrote to his daughters, Zeni and Zindzi, aged nine and ten, dated 23 June 1969 after Winnie Mandela was arrested. This is the kind of heartfelt emotions and thoughts Mandela pours onto the pages throughout his different correspondents with his family members and friends as documented on the pages of Conversations With Myself. The letters reveal the agony of a father who feels helpless as his wife and children are continuously harassed and bullied by the apartheid government while he is behind bars, unable to fight for them.

Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk To Freedom is one of the most popular books written by an African. To date, numerous biographies have been written about the man popularly known as Madiba. From the most recent Young Mandela, a sensational account by David James Smith to the critical study by Mary Benson in Nelson Mandela: The Man and The Movement. Why does the world need another book to tell us about one of the most written about man in recent history? “There are things that struck me, factual things about him as a person. We always suspected that he was a bit of a romantic and in these letters to his wife; one gets a better idea of how romantic he can be. Naturally, we couldn’t have known that because these are private letters to his wife, most of them not published before. So that comes as a bit of revelation and confirmation,” says Ahmed Kathrada, 81, a close and personal friend, who features in a lot of the conversations in the book. He served 26 years on Robben Island with Mr Mandela.“What immediately struck me when I read this book is the fact that he refused to be president,” says Kathrada as he explains that reading this book is the first time he realised Mandela was reluctant about becoming president. In his unpublished manuscripts, written in the late 90s, Mandela documents his unwillingness to become the ANC presidential candidate for the historic 1994 elections in South Africa, which saw him become the first democratically elected president of the nation. According to Kathrada, “He told the delegation from the executive arm of the ANC that he’s not going to be president. He is going to be 76, hence, they should choose a male or female to be president. They went and came back to him, and said the national executive had decided, you are going to be our candidate. He then said, ‘Well, let me make it clear,’ I’m not using his words now ‘I will only stand for one term.’ They said, well, that is not for you to decide. That is for the national executive to decide. But he went ahead of them and made public the fact that he would only stand for one term. That came as something new to me and so, it is very significant.”

Ironically, Mr Mandela, now 92, did not sit down to compile these different happenings in his life. Published in 21 editions and languages worldwide, it was put together by the Centre of Memory and Dialogue under the leadership of Verne Harris, which all comes under the banner of the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF.) However, he gave his blessings to the project as explained by Harris, in the book’s introduction. In an interview with CNN, Harris said the book is “All about the private person of Nelson Mandela, the human being behind the public figure. It’s about Nelson Mandela and what he says to himself when he does not have an audience.” Conversations With Myself, gives us insight into the vulnerable, compassionate, emotional, complex and complicated, trusting and witty Mandela as well as a man, who is his own worst critic, unashamed to muse about his personal weaknesses. In his own voice, he tells us the lessons he has learnt from his prison years. We see a son who cared deeply for his mother, cherishes the little things about life like spending time in the countryside where he had grown up as a child, and a man who appreciates the cultures and traditions of his people. We learn of the challenges that came with negotiating the democratic process which ended apartheid. It is the Mandela who refuses to speak ill of those around him but finds a way to say what needs to be said without the use of abrasive words. This is best demonstrated in a recorded conversation with Kathrada as they discuss aspects of his biography, Long Walk To Freedom. When the subject of Dr Moroka of the ANC, during the 1952 Defiance Campaign Trial, comes up, Mandela refuses to use the word ‘haughty’ to describe Moroka. “No, man…I don’t like the description of Moroka like that…In the first place, Moroka was never haughty. And I don’t like, in, a biography like this, you see, to make uncomplimentary remarks.”Described as a very disciplined and controlled man who guards his affairs, which many say has created a mask around him. One ponders why NMF has given this nature of exposure into his life when he is still alive? Kathrada said, “When the Mandela Foundation was set up, he deposited all his papers to the foundation. He must have had in mind that at some stage, there will be a move to publish these things. So, it won’t come as a surprise to him.” Sahm Venter is a senior researcher at NMF and also worked on the project. She adds, “It’s a project that the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue have wanted to do for a long time and Mr Mandela has never said, leave anything out. History is history and it was a project they wanted to do and thought it would be nice.” When Venter is asked if Mr Mandela’s lack of direct involvement in the project was to avoid any restriction as to what could be released to the public? She said, “Mr Mandela has always said that he does not believe in censorship. So, that was never a question.”

Through his letters, we see a man who is not easily swayed by promises which do not agree with the fundamental principles the world has come to know and respect him for. “I have described him previously in an article and articles, that he is inscrutable. He doesn’t show his emotions. Whether it’s something sad or something important,” says Kathrda. He gives an example of their time in prison, when they all looked forward to Mandela being visited or called to the office by prison officials as that was one source of getting information from the outside world.  He said in 1985, when President P. W. Botha, offered to release them, Mandela came back to the cells and was not flapped by the excitement of the news.  To him it was just one of those things, especially when you take into account, the conditions attached to the offer. A point which is reinforced in a letter dated 27 December 1984 to his wife, as he clarifies his position to K D Matanznzima and the idea that they, the prisoners be released to Bantustan scheme, which would have meant black south Africans being foreigners in their own land.In recent years, there have been talks from various quarters about the legacy of Nelson Mandela and its ownership. It is one legacy observers say could become the source of contention and competition from different factions. When asked if the publication of Conversations With Myself will help to draw a line on the tension? Harris said, “The book certainly doesn’t draw a line.  Others have their own stories, some of which are already in the public domain, others not.  The book merely invites an engagement with Nelson Mandela the human being and with his personal archive.  A line isn’t even drawn on the latter – the book is explicit about the fact that it shares merely a small selection, a sliver, of a large and rich collection of material.” A book that has been put together in an unusual style, part scrapbook, part literary album has so far been published to rave reviews about the level of honesty and intimacy that comes through. Peter Godwin, author of The Fear: The last Days of Robert Mugabe, wrote for the UK Guardian, “The book is intensely moving, raw and unmediated, told in real time with all the changes in perspective that brings, over the years, mixing the prosaic with the momentous.”

Momentous it may be but the realisation that Mandela is fully aware of his flaws will be reassuring to many. In the planned sequel to his autobiography which he never finished, he writes, “One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint. I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Harris says the book serves as a foretaste of what’s to come as he explains that the aim of the Foundation is to digitise the whole of Mandela’s personal archives and make it available for everyone on their website. Creating an access all area permits into a very private space for everybody. It is Kathrada’s wish that people will come to learn “Lessons about compassion, leadership and responsibility from the book, especially the younger people.”


This article first appeared in the November 2010 edition of the New African Magazine.

All Excerpts reproduced with the permission of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and PQ BlackWell, New Zealand.

Conversations With Myself is published by Macmillan (UK) PQ BlackWell, (New Zealand) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux (US)

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One Response to “Nelson Mandela: Conversations With Myself (Feature)”

  1. […] Last but not least, you can read a full feature here: Conversations With Myself by Nelson Mandela […]

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