Guest Column

Reading between the blurred lines

2017-07-30 05:52

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Solani Ngobeni

The furore over the publishing of the latest Mandela biography raises a host of questions.

A sure-fire way to ignite unprecedented interest in a book is banning it or taking it off shelf. Tell the public that the book is no longer available because of an impending lawsuit, and you have a bestseller on your hands.

When the news broke this week that Penguin Random House SA was immediately withdrawing its recently published book, Mandela’s Last Years – after legal action was threatened on the grounds that the book broke doctor-patient confidentiality – I had no doubt that a publishing phenomenon was unleashed.

The book, penned by former president Nelson Mandela’s physician, Vejay Ramlakan, offers intimate details of Madiba’s health conditions and the Mandela family dynamics around him.

Mandela’s Last Years hit the shelves on July 18 to coincide with the late statesman’s birthday. Exactly one week later, it was withdrawn.

With the print and electronic media latching on to this story worldwide, it was inevitable that even those who never buy or read books were intrigued by what members of the Mandela family, and Graça Machel in particular, wanted to keep private.

Once ignited, public curiosity got the better of the nation. This news story has become a circus.

Yet, for publishers, who constantly bemoan the public’s disinterest in book buying and reading, having a bookish story as a leading news item is something of a godsend as it shines a spotlight on the industry. If only the furore did not involve such a universally loved icon as the late Madiba.

Following the announcement that the publishers would no longer issue copies of the book, an unprecedented surge in interest ensued.

Booksellers were inundated with inquiries about the availability of Mandela’s Last Years, and those who had purchased it during the week of its release found themselves suddenly owning a collector’s item.

In the advertising world, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Seeing Penguin Random House SA trending this past week may have encouraged some budding writers to post their unsolicited manuscripts to publishers.

Ethics

Over the past 15 years, South Africa has seen a mushrooming of locally penned books, particularly biographies and political accounts. From Trevor Noah to Somizi Mhlongo to Bonang Matheba, the cult of the personality has been brought into the publishing mainstream here, attracting a much broader readership.

The same goes for political accounts – books by former public protector Thuli Madonsela and former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke are the recent ones that spring to mind.

While this bodes well for the publishing industry, the following questions regarding Mandela’s Last Years must be asked: How could Penguin Random House SA have even contemplated publishing it – even if, as the company claims, the author confirmed that family members had approved of his writing it – given that it dealt with Mandela’s passing? How are such decisions taken? Was the motive for publishing pure greed – a case of “monopoly capital” profiteering from black pain? If Penguin Random House SA was so sure of the family’s consent, why did it renege on its earlier pronouncements that the book would remain on shelf?

So, in withdrawing the book, did the company suddenly develop a conscience, or did the notion of a drawn-out litigation with Madiba’s executors do the trick? Surely you cannot afford to take on Madiba’s legacy and expect to publish books by progressive natives in future – and have them buy your books, to boot?

Some argue that the book should not have been published, given that it recounts intimate details of Mandela’s ailments, especially at a time when he was retired and out of the public eye.

In this regard, the book may as well have been called Madiba’s Medical Diary. While initial chapters cover Madiba’s publicly known ailments, it is the following ones, in which Ramlakan records medical conditions leading up to Mandela’s last moments, that are so contentious. For instance, Ramlakan tells of his protracted hospital stay at Pretoria Mediclinic Heart Hospital that was not public knowledge. He also describes what must have been an excruciating time for the former statesman and his family as he lies on his deathbed.

These revelations make us question the ethics of the publishing industry, as well as those of Ramlakan. If the manuscript had not been written, the issue of publishing would not have arisen. Yet there is this counterargument: refusing Ramlakan publishing rights would have amounted to censorship – and self-censorship, since it is claimed in the blurb and the preface of the book that the Mandela family consented to it being written and published.

Machel and the executors of Mandela’s will have publicly stated that they had no knowledge of the book. Pitted against Ramlakan’s insistence that he received the blessing of “certain members of the Mandela family” to go ahead with his manuscript, the only thing that we, the public, know for sure is that divisions within the Mandela family exist.

With a plethora of books having been written about Madiba, there is no doubt that he is a publishing phenomenon – and no doubt, a number of manuscripts on his majestic life are still in the pipeline. This latest controversy serves as a lesson for authors and publishers to keep ethical issues top of mind before going ahead.

Ngobeni is a book publisher and the 2007 South African finalist in the British Council’s International Young Publisher of the Year awards programme

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Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  graça machel
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