Nelson Mandela: Conversations With a Myth

Nelson Mandela: Conversations With a Myth

Nelson Mandela: Conversations With a Myth

In his new memoir the South African leader struggles to overcome his image as a saint.


Beware sainthood. Everybody wants a piece of you. Just ask Nelson Mandela.

On the final page of his monumental and intriguing new book, Conversations With Myself, undoubtedly the last he will publish under his name, he offers us this closing message: "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." And he adds, "I was never one, even on the basis of the earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."

This sacrosanct image was deliberately built by the African National Congress as a way of personalizing the struggle against apartheid in one man who had already become something of a legend, a "Black Pimpernel," during his clandestine years as head of the ANC’s armed wing. It helped that Madiba (his clan name) incarnated an exemplary story of rural and tribal boyhood, adolescent rebellion against discrimination and an increasing commitment, as an adult, to social justice and nonracial politics, all of which culminated in the 1963–64 Rivonia trial, where he and seven of his co-defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela’s story became even more of a model when, over the next twenty-seven years, he withstood with exceptional nobility the most extreme forms of humiliation exacted upon him and his faraway family.

If Prisoner 46664 could not but acquiesce in this inevitable promotion of his heroic persona during the Manichaean battle against an oppressive regime, once he was liberated into a shifty world of nuances and illusions, Mandela was to discover how difficult, almost impossible, it was to undermine his own aura. His life story turned out to be foundational during the grueling transition to democracy, when he often had to intervene with one side or the other to avoid chaos and further bloodshed.

One needs to recognize—as Madiba incessantly does—that the crucial protagonists of this emancipatory epic were the people of South Africa, inspired and led by countless militants, most of them anonymous and many of them unrewarded and forgotten once democracy was attained. But it is safe to suggest that this is one of those cases where one individual changes the path of history. The end of the racist South African regime is simply inconceivable without the moral capital and charisma Mandela had accumulated during his prison years. As a symbol of dignity and resistance he was, well, irresistible; but the compassion he showed once he was released, the ability to speak to his enemies and bring them to the table, his disposition to forgive (but never to forget) the terror inflicted on him and his people, his willingness to see the good in others, to trust their deepest sense of humanity and honor, turned him into the sort of ethical giant that our species desperately needed in a petty era of devastation and greed. Such a halo can, however, be just as confining as an island where every move and word is guarded.

It is, I believe, in order to escape from that bubble that Mandela has authored (though "authorized" might be a more appropriate word) this new attempt at self-definition, these conversations with himself.

The book is a project Mandela had been nursing for a long time. As he approached the end of his five breathless years as president (he served only one term, which further enhanced his stature in a continent where strongmen perpetuate themselves eternally in power), he sat down one October day in 1998 and wrote out a first chapter of what he termed a sequel to his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. That was, however, as far as he went. The subsequent years were hectic and overwhelming, both in the South Africa then governed by Thabo Mbeki and in a distressed world where Mandela’s planetary stardom foisted on him a leading role in every imaginable humanitarian cause and crisis. By the time an 85-year-old Madiba decided to step away from public life in 2004, he no longer had the energy to spend hours scribbling away to convince readers that he was as "ordinary" as they were, just one more of so many "men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides."

But if age, that relentless enemy, denied him the vigor to complete this task, another solution was at hand. His retirement in 2004 coincided with the creation, inside the foundation that bears his name, of the Center for Memory and Dialogue, where the dispersed documentation of Mandela’s existence was to be amassed, classified and contextualized. Soon enough, Verne Harris, the foundation’s archivist and head of its memory program, realized that a book—the sort of down-to-earth self-portrait that Mandela desired to leave behind—might well be culled from the massive materials. It was an arduous task, even with Madiba’s blessing (but not his direct intervention). It would take a terrific team assembled by Harris six years to shape a select number of evocative passages into a chronological montage that would eventually become the book.

Mandela’s obsession with memory is well-known, most notably his insistence that apartheid was a crime against remembering, that it was essential not to allow the minority owners of the land and the law and the word to determine the story that was to be told. Because this battle against collective oblivion has been paramount in the history of South Africa, it is easy for the public to lose sight of a parallel labor of love that threads through his existence, how this fighter for liberation has incessantly strained to remember his past, preserve it for the future. It is what first came to my mind when, during a 2010 trip to South Africa to deliver the eighth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, I visited the treasure trove containing his documents in a well-secured room deep inside the Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg.

To reach that sanctuary one must descend a wide circular stairway to an underground floor, then pass a gantlet of glass-lined offices until a bolted door is reached, behind which a vast collection of memorabilia awaits. It’s all there, from the earliest photos and identity cards to the letters from prison and the clandestine manuscripts smuggled out of Robben Island. And nearby repose his passports and diaries and marked-up calendars, an endless array of memorandums and interviews and tapes of conversations and scribbled notes.

Though only a smidgen of these could be consigned in Conversations With Myself, readers have been made to feel as if they were tiptoeing through that archive, miraculously eavesdropping on a medley of Mandela’s thoughts and emotions, just a skip and a heartbeat away from the very soul of the man. Each carefully chosen paragraph and episode exudes closeness, the sense that the text has come to us unadulterated, just as the great man wrote or spoke it. This experience of intimacy is heightened by reproductions in the book of correspondence and pages from notebooks, some with corrections from his own hand. Just to give one telling example, Mandela writes that his comrades had "raised him from obscurity to become [an] enigma." But in the original draft, replicated in facsimile, we notice that the author originally wrote "hero," then crossed that word out and substituted "enigma." This struggle over one word embodies the dilemma Mandela faces at the end of his life. As he revises his own words, his own life, he understands that the process of turning him into a hero had ended up making him an enigma.

A similar access to a vulnerable Mandela comes from a fascinating assortment of transcripts of conversations with his two main collaborators on Long Walk to Freedom. It is notorious that this autobiography, secretly composed on Robben Island, was a collective work, discussed, amended and vetted by Mandela’s fellow captives. Madiba has acknowledged that his autobiography, published in 1994 to coincide with his inauguration as the first freely elected president of South Africa, would not have been possible without the help of Achmed Kathrada, his comrade from his Robben Island days, and Richard Stengel, his editor; but what the public could not know until now was the extent and thoroughness of that work. One of the treats of Conversations With Myself is to be able to listen in on the sessions where reminiscences are examined for potential errors, and details are clarified and altered, calling attention to the book as an artifact—like Mandela himself—born of a dynamic process of naked back and forth, give and take. This is an icon who laughs, hems and haws, gossips, disagrees, arbitrates, accepts he’s mistaken, insists he’s right, wonders what happened to such and such, is reminded that it would be kind to look up a former guard and see how he is doing or tone down the polemics used to describe a rival.

If these flickers of banter are the most enjoyable part of the book, it may well be because they are so fresh and unguarded. As soon as Mandela starts to wield the pen, a certain formality creeps in. If this is typical of written words in contrast to oral language, in his case I suspect that it feeds on a natural decorum that has been his inner companion since childhood, that responds to the deepest core of his being. This is a man who has built his image on trust and transparency and yet, perhaps for that very reason, is absolutely adamant about protecting his privacy. Conversations With Myself has no tidbits that readers would expect in tell-all confessions. Only two pages of a book that is more than 400 pages long approach the issue of sexuality. When asked whether he was bothered by the possibility that his wife, Winnie, might have had love affairs while he was serving a life sentence, he answers very simply that this is a question that "you know…one had to wipe out of his mind."

Unsurprisingly, this profound reserve was exacerbated during his prison years, when every sentence in every letter was inspected by his jailers. One of the more chilling aspects of reading Mandela’s Robben Island correspondence is that you can almost hear the overseers turning the page, skimming through the contents of what was not meant for their eyes, probing into what only his loved ones should be reading. And yet this correspondence also breathes a dignity so fierce that it’s heartbreaking. It is almost as if, even in the darkest hours, even when there seemed to be no expectation that he would ever be freed, even the day he received news of the death of his son or the passing of his mother or the detention and then solitary confinement for eighteen months of Winnie, even as he wrote letters he knew might not be delivered—even then, especially then, he was imagining a tomorrow when his every expression would carry weight and meaning, would be meticulously scrutinized not by wardens but by his fellow citizens and possibly, who knows, a worldwide audience. Even so, I doubt he could have anticipated the day when a book like Conversations With Myself would be published in multiple languages and twenty-two countries.

There is another, perhaps even more remarkable, aspect of those letters from Robben Island. As we read, we can guess how Mandela has factored the censors in. He is also writing to them, through them, boring into them—you can almost discern their presence in his mind, his certainty that these custodians can be shamed by his words about their cruelty and lack of the most common decency. You realize how he performs a theory of liberation for that sentinel audience; you catch a glimpse of how he is educating his jailers despite their prejudices. And a glimpse, as well, at how he is educating himself, preparing for the task of bridging the racial and class divide that threatened to destroy South Africa. How he is becoming Nelson Mandela.

Maybe that is why he is so disturbed by his transformation into a saint. It was not because he was removed from others, removed from evil, removed from the weaknesses of a frail humanity, that he prevailed. It was by plunging into what was negative in himself and the aching world around him that he was able to develop "whatever is good," as he puts it in his book. How to do this? One word keeps cropping up, over and over: integrity. His own integrity and his confidence that it exists in everyone on this planet, no matter how harshly hidden by fear and intolerance, and that if you appeal to the best in others, they will, ultimately, respond. But they will do so only if they sense that you are being true to yourself and your values, your desire for a more just and humane world, that you are ready to draw a line in the sand of history.

It is a message that his country needs to heed once again. His wondrous South Africa that is again in danger of losing its way. His land that will soon have to face a long century of renewed struggle for solidarity and truth and peace without Madiba’s guiding presence. The need to face up to that looming absence leads us to the unspoken and hidden heart of this book. Mandela is saying goodbye.

What to say back to him? How to best honor his legacy, his wisdom, his generosity? I can only respond with the last words I offered this 92-year-old man at the end of our conversation in Johannesburg a few months ago. Accompanied by his wife, Graca Machel—who is graciousness personified—and Achmat Dangor, the eminent novelist who has postponed his own literary work in order to serve as chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, we chatted with Madiba for a good hour. About Allende and Chile, about his parents, about Mandela Day, about how the latest wave of xenophobia in South Africa pains him, about the recent loss of his great-granddaughter. Age has slowed him down, but his dignity is majestically intact, and I was glad to note how a mischievous twinkle lit up his eyes now and again. I was aware that his health might not allow him to attend the lecture in his honor I was to deliver a few days later, and that this might indeed be the last time I would ever see him, that this would be the last chance to thank him for what he has done, for who he is. So when we bade farewell, I told him, with perhaps excessive solemnity, that he should rest.

"For a long time, you have carried your country, you have carried the world, you have carried me," I said. "Now it is time that we carried you." And then, not letting go of my hand, Nelson Mandela smiled.

So that’s the answer: if we can learn how to carry him into the future, we will be blessed by his smile. Can we ask anything more of this man who, fortunately for himself and the world, is not, after all, a saint?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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