Nelson Mandela and the X Factor

I FIND it hard to believe there’s a soul anywhere who doesn’t admire Nelson Mandela.

Rational people go weak at the knees when they meet him. International superstars – often so aloof around mere mortals – practically queue round the block to have their picture taken with him.

And although most of us, I’m sure, realise he’s just a man – with all the imperfections that implies – there’s an undeniable, indefinable special quality that he brings to the world.

It’s not only about what he fought for – the list of those who were as dedicated, who suffered torture, imprisonment and, in the worst cases, death, is long and illustrious.

He’s just got the X factor.

That said, I have to admit that when this book landed on my desk it had me wondering if there is really room for yet another Mandela book among the hundreds already in print.

Well, I discovered that there is – and this is it.

The foreword by America’s President Barack Obama left me slightly uncomfortable, though. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it but why on earth was it necessary; it’s not as though our elder statesman needs international “celebrity” endorsement.

What makes this book so special?

Quite simply, it’s the man himself, told in his own words often at the very time the events and thoughts reflected were happening.

There’s no behind-the-scenes speech-writer, no professional journalist prompting long-past memories for a ghost-written autobiography, no message tailored for public consumption (although I’m sure he had to be very circumspect about what he wrote from prison).

This is the real deal.

Skilfully put together from his private archive, the book was developed via the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue. The centre’s priority, when it was launched in 2004, was “to document the scattered and fragmented ‘Mandela Archive’,” according to project leader Verne Harris.

“In a real sense,” he says, echoing my own thoughts, “… it gives us his own voice – direct, clear, private.”

Their final selection drew on four particular areas – the prison letters; two major collections of taped conversations; Mandela’s notebooks (it was his habit, before his imprisonment, to always carry one with him); and the draft of an unfinished sequel to Long Walk to Freedom, which he started writing himself, on blue notepaper, in 1998.

He talks and writes of his political beliefs, his passion for South African history and culture, traditional leadership, his mother, his wives, his children. In some ways, reading this book feels a bit like eavesdropping and that’s probably another of the reasons it’s so fascinating.

In a 1986 letter to Joy Mosieloa, he writes that, even though aware of the potential hazards, had he known exactly what lay ahead for him, he would still have done it all again.

“… so I believe, at least. But that decision would certainly have been far more daunting, and some of the tragedies which subsequently followed would have melted whatever traces of steel were inside me.”

One of the poignant moments for me – and there are many in the book – concerns a letter written to his daughter, “My darling Zindzi”, from his prison cell in 1979.

Included in a Christmas card, the letter has him in reminiscent mood, talking about the gym he used to attend in Orlando East, the colourful ex- champ who ran the place, and “Mum” (ex-wife Winnie), who “was glowing with good health and happiness in those days”.

“The house was like a beehive with the family, old school friends, fellow workers from Bara (Baragwanath Hospital, where Winnie worked at the time), members of the gym and even clients calling at the house to chat with her.

“For more than two years, she and I literally lived on honeymoon … it is more than two decades since then, yet I recall those days so clearly ….”

Why is this particular letter so poignant – apart from the very sad circumstances of father and child, that is – you may ask.

It never reached 19-year-old Zindzi, who was only 18 months old when her father was sent to Robben Island. It was confiscated by prison censors because Mandela didn’t have permission to include it in the card.

Wrote the censor at the time: “I have discussed this … with Brigadier du Plessis and he agrees with the decision. Keep it in the file.”

Petty, mean, spiteful.

Happy Christmas, Nelson Mandela. Happy Christmas, Zindzi.

How this man didn’t come out of prison hating all white people is a mystery to me. I don’t think I’d have been so forgiving. (Mandela wasn’t told at the time that it hadn’t been sent but he obviously found out later.)

There are lighter moments, of course. You only have to look at those twinkly eyes to know that, despite the many hardships, this is a man with a sense of humour.

I must admit, though, I was surprised that in later years his personalised desk-top notepaper featured comic-strip cat Garfield.

Ever mindful of human weakness, in all Mandela’s scribblings, musings and letters, it’s clear to see that he strives to remain fair, modest and grounded.

He writes in 1971, in a letter to Fatima Meer: “… The trouble, of course, is that most successful men are prone to some sort of vanity.

“There comes a stage in their lives when they consider it permissible to be egotistic and to brag to the public at large about their unique achievements.

“What a sweet euphemism for self-praise the English language has evolved!

“Autobiography ….”

This particular autobiography – for that’s the only genre that fits – proves him, in this instance at least, entirely wrong. — Stevie Godson

Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela is published by Macmillan. This review first appeared in the Saturday Dispatch

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This entry was posted by stevieg on Monday, November 22nd, 2010 at 7:00 am and is filed under General . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Michel Yuk says:

    Nice post.. I’m sure you get this a lot but this one’s truly golden. Waiting for the next one!

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