Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Brent Meersman

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Mandela’s ‘Conversations with Myself’- A review

At a demonstration outside the Cape High Court last October, protesters from an informal settlement who face eviction, unfurled a colourful, handwritten banner: ‘Madiba – Long walk to Freedom’.
From the poorest to the richest, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, affectionately known by his clan name Madiba, remains an inspiration to the citizenry not only of South Africa but globally. Lauded for his courage, moral rectitude and impeccable character, he is a beacon of decency in a world almost thoroughly disenchanted with politicians.
His countrymen however have firsthand experience of his feet of clay – domestic and foreign policy failures, his untenable silences over gross mismanagement and abuses of power by his comrades. Yet none of this ever diminished their love for him.
His presence of mind is legendary. After his release, documentary filming on Robben Island had to be halted as Mandela insisted on finding the prisoner then occupying his cell to ask his permission to sit on the bed. When a heckler is ejected by security he worries about whether they were hurt. At public appearances he’ll amble over to pickets to find out what are their demands. At state banquets he’ll want to wander into the kitchen to thank the cooks and dishwashers. Such stories have turned him into a saint.
Critics of Mandela either begrudge the praise lavished on him personally, where they feel the collective is responsible for his successes, while others critical of the collective admonish him for not acting more forthrightly in his individual capacity. Such is the dilemma of great statesmen.
It is to his credit, that as idealised as he is, Mandela has always been approachable and has never demanded blind loyalty nor encouraged a cult following. He announced early on in his presidency that he would only serve one term and hoped this would set an example to the continent.
South Africans feel eternally grateful to Mandela because during his leadership the country successfully held its first democratic election when at the time a ruinous racial conflagration seemed inevitable. But he writes: ‘the breakthrough [for liberation] is never the result of individual effort. It is always a collective effort and triumph.’
During apartheid, bans were harshly enforced on images of Mandela and even recordings of his voice. White South Africans especially knew nothing of the man. The prison authorities on occasion withheld Mandela’s birthday cards on what is now a United Nations’ recognised day of international public service.
Mandela has, as his archivist, Verne Harris states, become an inseparable part of the ‘creation myth’ of the new nation. Many agonise that what is vaguely described as his ‘legacy’ is all that holds the country together. As far back as 1997, journalist Lester Venter brought out a book ‘When Mandela Goes’.
Mandela is 92, frail but in good health for his age, even if his short-term memory is erratic.
His autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, though honest enough, was reticent. Mandela quotes his fellow veteran Walter Sisulu as saying: ‘we want you to be a model around which we are going to build our organisation’. The myth-making began in earnest. Come election time, ‘Madiba magic’ is still employed by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to deliver votes.
Yet Mandela is not untouchable. The dismantling of the legend and historical revision of his tenure began, if gently, with Professor Tom Lodge’s ‘Mandela: A Critical Life’. In August, newspapers ran front page claims of a possible love child. British writer David James Smith’s ‘Young Mandela’, an unauthorised biography, has been roundly criticised for its celebrity approach and elevating unattributed comment (gossip in other words).
Mandela has now opened his personal archive. The result is ‘Conversations with Myself’, a biographical scrapbook winnowed from primary sources: family correspondence during his 27-year incarceration; 70 hours of conversations taped in 1994 held with Ahmed Kathrada (his fellow political prisoner) and Richard Stengel (his ghost writer, now managing editor of ‘Time’) when they reviewed the draft text of ‘Long Walk’; his personal notebooks and aide-mémoire; the unpublished draft of his autobiography written in prison and the unpublished and abandoned sequel to it written in 1998.
Despite claims the book is an exposé; it is nothing like the ‘Confessions of St Augustine’. Mandela won’t speak ill of anyone unable to defend themselves. What a contrast to the back-stabbing, self-serving memoirs of many recent politicians. He says, ‘criticism must be dignified’, ‘factual’, ‘realistic’ and ‘honest’.
He has no insightful comments on any of the many famous people he meets, only bland compliments; even sanction-busting Margaret Thatcher is ‘very charming’, ‘very warm’ and ‘generous’. We learn they shared the same eye specialist. Penal labour in the glare of the lime quarry on Robben Island ruined his eyes.
Where others are involved, Mandela flatly refuses to go into private matters. Stengel, tactful but audacious, presses him on how he would feel if there was marital infidelity on the part of Winnie Mandela. He replies, ‘one must not be inquisitive. It is sufficient that this is a woman who is loyal to me’.
We hear of domestic arguments, but are not told what they are about. A reader must accept that it is noble enough of Mandela not to want to hurt others.
What we do get are his loving letters to Winnie and later on to ‘Mum Gra’ (his current wife Graça Machel).
The most sustained allegation against Mandela, not least made by himself, is the terrible price his family had to pay for his convictions. But such family sacrifice is common to all struggle veterans, many of whom paid the ultimate price.
He writes that his son Thembi aged five, ‘asked his mother where I lived’; this is before Mandela’s incarceration.
Mandela confides: “Hundreds, millions, in our country are suffering and so I felt I had taken the correct decision’. ‘Never shall I regret the decision I made in ’61, but I wish one day my conscience would sit easy in my bosom.’
When his eldest son is killed, the authorities deny him permission to attend the funeral. ‘I spent moments in my cell which I never want to remember’, ‘the last place where a man stricken with sorrow should be’. He is also refused consent to be present at his mother’s funeral. ‘I had never dreamt that I would be unable to bury ma’.
‘My heart bleeds,’ he writes when informed that Winnie has been detained. ‘I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone and soul, so bitter I am to be completely powerless to help you’.
These ordeals are more painful than all the brutalities of the prison: ‘the lengthy sentence’, the hard labour, the tedium, the slop they are fed, the mindless repetition. But guilt only makes him less demonstrative in his affection; the family must cope on its own.
‘Age and a conservative cultural background [as an African patriarch] do not make it easy for me to discuss in public such intimate feelings or emotions’.
Mandela felt as a leader he had to set the example and defy the government who were bent on breaking him and his spirit. He speaks of the mask he has to wear: ‘The truth is my appearance had nothing to do with the state of my feelings. I was badly wounded and shaken.’
The stiff upper lip comes through in other ways. His missionary school influence is evident when he quaintly talks of ‘the chaps’, refers to a doctor as ‘the quack’, and regularly uses the polite exclamation ‘gee whiz’.
There are many intimate moments. We have Mandela boxing at gym, rehearsing on a penny whistle, overcome with emotion when his car runs over a snake, cleaning the toilet bucket of a fellow prisoner, recounting his dreams and often terrifying nightmares. There is the moment in court before sentence is pronounced when he expects the death penalty.
We are privy to him learning to fire a gun in Ethiopia, developing insurgent strategy, and how happy he is to be in London and able to buy all the literature he wants on guerrilla warfare (banned in South Africa at the time). His inspirations come from unlikely quarters – the Boer commando tactics from Deneys Reitz and Menachem Begin’s terrorist campaign inside Israel for independence.
He is lethally astute. While Govan Mbeki was dreaming of a peasant revolution, Mandela is clear that the struggle will be led by ‘the urban areas where militant workers and an emergent class of prosperous and ambitious traders were suffering all the frustrations of racial prejudice’.
He categorically states he was never a communist. ‘I thought Marxism’ was ‘subjecting us to a foreign ideology’. He also maintains in an essay published in 1956 that the Freedom Charter was ‘not a blueprint for socialism’ but ‘for capitalism’, as Africans would finally have the right to own property ‘and capitalism will flourish among them as never before’.
Freedom may have been won, but his hopes for a ‘society where people will cease thinking in terms of colour’ are still far from realized.
You have to deal with human as humans ‘produced by the mud in society’. He sets out his code as: honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others’.
Far from revealing flaws in his character, ‘Conversations’ is once again offering wise observations to restore the moral compass to South Africa’s deteriorating political ethos.
In accord with current social commentary, many will find it apt when he writes: ‘Frequently erstwhile revolutionaries have easily succumbed to greed and the tendency to divert public resources for personal enrichment ultimately overwhelmed them… They virtually deserted the masses of the people and joined the former oppressors, who enriched themselves by mercilessly robbing the poorest of the poor.’
Even Barrack Obama, who wrote the forward, might sober at the elder statesman’s reflection that it is ‘misleading to place your trust on good men, no matter how highly placed they may be. Where systems are involved, the goodness of individuals is very often irrelevant’. He might too give pause to the assertion that ‘a man holding high office will protect the rights of even his bitterest opponents in battle’.
Mandela reminds us that individuals can and do make a difference and need not stand by hopeless and defeated even against very great odds.
Although the content is carefully selected, the letters incomplete, excerpted and expurgated, Mandela is once again setting the example. His entire archive will be digitalised and made public.
This unique political memoir which intends to show the man not the saint will only make people feel closer to Mandela than ever.

This article appeared in New Africa Analysis in November 2010


Please register or log in to comment