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Updated: December 28, 2010 12:20 IST

Thus spake Mandela

M. S. Prabhakara
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Of the hundreds of books written about Nelson Mandela, including those authored by him, this book is unique in its content and organisation. Though it carries his name on the title page, Mandela was not involved in the ‘book project', implemented by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue, part of the Nelson Mandela Foundation; he remains the author for copyright purposes.

Comprising four parts, each bearing a classical nomenclature — Pastoral, Drama, Epic, and Tragicomedy — the book is Mandela in conversation as much with himself as with some of his closest friends and comrades. Included in it are passages from his prison letters that have survived the ‘remorseless fates', the censors; his notebooks and diaries; taped conversations (since his release) with Ahmed Kathrada, his close friend and comrade, and Richard Stengel, collaborator and editor of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom; and the draft of the ‘Unfinished Sequel' to the autobiography. It is a joy to listen to the voice, to look at facsimiles of Mandela's clear writing, and to respond to the memory that informs every one of these dialogues.

While ‘Pastoral' covers the years of childhood and growing up, ‘Drama' deals with the years of struggle, and ‘Epic' with the hard years in prison. ‘Tragicomedy' relates to the negotiations and the years in power, viewed with ironic detachment — a quality that is brilliantly captured in this passage from the ‘Unfinished Sequel': “As a young man I … combined all the weaknesses, errors and indiscretions of a country boy… I relied on arrogance in order to hide my weaknesses. As an adult, my comrades raised me and other fellow prisoners, with some significant exceptions, from obscurity to either a bogey or enigma, although the aura of being one of the world's longest serving prisoners never totally evaporated. 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.”

Public domain

The choices Mandela made early in his life meant that he lived virtually all his life in the public domain. Born in Mvezo, a village in Tembuland, he spent his formative years in villages and small towns in Eastern Cape: Mvezo, Qunu, Mqhekezweni, Clarksbury, Healdtown, Fort Beaufort, Fort Hare, and Alice. Though, at 23, he “escaped an arranged marriage” and moved to Johannesburg, the arena of ‘Struggle that was Life', he remained nostalgic about rural Eastern Cape. Indeed, he built a house in Qunu modelled on the cottage he lived in Victor Verster. In the only one-to-one meeting I had with Mandela in January 1995, I requested him to autograph my copy of Long Walk to Freedom. When I interrupted, as he was about sign below his name on the title page, and wanted him to sign at the bottom of another page where I had charted out these little dorps, his small eyes lit up in curiosity and joy.

Nelson Mandela, the public man, was a formidable persona. He could be jovial, if he chose, especially with lowly placed persons; but one knew that he was ‘royalty'. The distance was inevitable because ‘struggle was his life'. In this book, however, one hears the private, personal voice of Mandela, particularly in the stoical or bantering recollections — as, for instance, catching Oliver Tambo eating potato chips during the great potato boycott of 1959; the refusal to go into the details of the breakdown of his first marriage and the gradual disintegration of his second marriage; the death of close relations while he was in prison; voting in the first democratic election and of the elderly African woman from northern Transvaal who wanted to vote for “the boy who came from jail” (Mandela was 76 then!) but did not know the boy's name or his organisation; and his admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru whose ideas and even words he often borrowed without acknowledging. One of the most moving recollections is about the un-self-conscious friendship and true non-racialism he experienced in the Johannesburg home of Ruth First and Joe Slovo.

For a non-racial society

Speaking of non-racialism, there is much confusion, even among those who abhorred apartheid, between ‘multiracialism' and ‘non-racialism'. Even a well-informed writer like Anthony Sampson, author of Mandela: The Authorised Biography (Harper Collins, London, 1999) uses the two terms interchangeably as if they mean one and the same thing. They do not. This book puts the record straight, in Mandela's own words: “We have never really accepted multiracialism. Our demand is for a non-racial society, because when you talk of multiracialism, you are saying that you have in this country so many races. This is in a way to perpetuate the concept of ‘race', and we preferred to say we want a non-racial society… We discussed and said exactly what we are saying, that we are not multi-racialist, we are non-racialist. We are fighting for a society where people will cease thinking in terms of colour… It is not a question of race; it is a question of ideas.”

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