Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself, by Nelson Mandela, Macmillan £25, 344 pages

One of the more irritating tendencies of modern publishers has been their willingness to rush the half-digested thoughts – and worse still, memos – of an eminent policymaker or commentator into print as a quick money-spinner. Bookstores, particularly in the US, are full of such nugatory offerings.

There are places early in Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself when readers may fear the great statesman’s aides have been enticed by his publishers down a similar pointless path. For devotees of anti-apartheid history, there are delicious titbits almost from the first page. But after two chapters some readers may start fretting and even, heretically given the near godlike status of the author, thinking of skim-reading. For in truth, some of the early items selected from the Mandela archive are a little recherché, even banal. There is a detailed extract from an unpublished autobiographical manuscript written in prison, about traditional leaders, which adds little to what we knew about his views on chieftainship. We are shown a copy of his Methodist church card, surely one of those mementoes that are best kept in a trunk in an attic and should not make a biographer’s cut.

So could it be, some may ask, that this the most admired figure of our era has merely served up the few undocumented dregs from the bottom of a brilliant but well-recorded life? What about the old maxim “less is more”?

Such readers should keep the faith. The early pages may be a little dry, but they are the foundations for a splendid finale to the Mandela literature. This book will reduce the reader to both rapture and tears.

In his introductory lines, Verne Harris, the wise and sensitive curator of Mandela’s archive, invites the reader to see the book as the 21st-century equivalent of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius’s meditations. As the book advances, so his method is clear. We have had the grand autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, the sweeping testament to an extraordinary life. Then there have been two waves of biographies filling in many of the awkward details of which Mandela shied clear. Now, via a range of sources, including conversations recorded in the early 1990s with his great friend Ahmed Kathrada, we are introduced to the human side of Mandela.

The most poignant insights come from prison letters. Many never reached their destination as they were withheld by the authorities, and have only recently been unearthed in the state records. We meet the older husband who had a tendency to lecture his much younger, vivacious second wife Winnie; the clear-minded lawyer who drafted letters to the apartheid authorities exposing the logical and moral flaws of their cruel laws; the outwardly dauntless nationalist grandee troubled about the way ahead and debating the morality of having taken up arms; the agonised absentee father, all too aware that his children paid a high price for his political crusade.

Mandela is, as has often been observed, steeped in the Victorian precepts of his missionary teachers. In that context, his declarations of love to Winnie in letters from Robben Island are all the more poignant. (Many are charmingly accompanied by a copy of the originals in Mandela’s loopy handwriting.) Who also could not be moved by his letter to Zindzi, his and Winnie’s second daughter, in February 1980? It is 17 years into his incarceration, and he is writing to her about a poem she has composed entitled “A tree was chopped down”. The poem pointedly refers to a family deprived of its father. Mandela replies at length, before movingly recalling Winnie’s beauty even as he remembers the sadness of an early miscarriage. “She was barely 25 then and looked loving and tasty in her young and smooth body that was covered by a pink silk gown. But ... I noticed that she was also sweating heavily ... ” Coming from an old-fashioned traditional man, this is deeply moving.

Then there is his prison calendar, which reads like the diary of a Benedictine monk shedding light into the Dark Ages. Month after month he marked each day with terse entries. “16th January 1984: Planted carrots, beetroots and peanuts.” Then, two days later: “Planted tomatoes in two separate trays.” We hear of his ailments, what he read and flickers of news from the outside world. He notes without comment that in 1981 he came third in the race to be chancellor of London University, easily beaten by Princess Anne and trade unionist Jack Jones. (How recent it was that he was still seen with ambivalence.)

In one of the most striking conversations, Mandela cites a parable of the sun and the wind. In the end, it is the sun through its warmth rather than the wind through its force which wins a contest to persuade a traveller to discard a blanket. This, amazingly, as we all know, was Mandela’s way in a country beset by tempests. We may never quite understand how or why, but this book as much as anything else helps.

Alec Russell is the FT’s comment and analysis editor and author of ‘After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa’ (Hutchinson)

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