Opening a window on a private man

2010-10-17 15:13

Haven’t we heard enough about the planet’s most famous living icon – his favourite foods, his childhood fables, his celebrity friends. Can there really be any more money or meaning left to be milked? Even his own archivist admits bluntly that the world is suffering from “Mandela fatigue”.

And yet, Conversations with Myself is not just another retelling of one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary lives. The book – more like a giant scrapbook – is a tour through Mandela’s own private archives, opened and revealed in full for the very first time.

It is a raw, intensely personal, dense and often moving self-portrait of a “flawed”, “vain” and “ordinary” man who seems determined to take a chisel to the “living saint” mythology that has steadily built up around him.

The book has been pulled together by the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s archivist Verne Harris from Mandela’s private notebooks, prison diaries, letters and conversations. It includes parts of an unfinished sequel to his famously inspirational, but sometimes rather dry, autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

The voice that now emerges is much more intimate, more contemplative, more vulnerable – the voice of a husband and father, talking about his dreams, his insecurities, his sex life (or lack of it in prison) and allegations that he beat his first wife.

“It’s very important that he should not be portrayed as a saint,” said Mac Maharaj, another liberation hero who spent 12 years on Robben Island with Mandela.

“This is a great window on the private man ... You see the intensity of his pain (in his letters to his family from prison).”

The book is published at a time when – as the 92-year-old former South African president’s health continues to fade – some of his aides are warning of a “more and more brutal” battle for control of his legacy, and of the wealth that the Mandela “brand name” can still generate.

The opening of the archives is part of a broader campaign to address such issues.

“The idea that people in leadership positions are not ordinary humans is a very dangerous concept. If we just reduce him to a set of values, I think we gain nothing from him,” Maharaj told me, arguing that Mandela himself had never shown any interest in his legacy.

“He is comfortable in his skin. Every person who starts worrying about his or her legacy begins to stumble,” he told me.

“Read Tony Blair’s biography.”

Despite being one of the most famous people in the world, Madiba has carefully guarded his privacy.

Some of his closest friends admit that he can be “a bit of an enigma. He has never revealed his very innermost feelings,” said Amina Cachalia, who first met him in the 1940s.

“I think the world has a fair idea of the man ... but he is very careful, very conscious of what he says. I always felt he had built a wall around himself. But the iconic image is also very true because he is that man.”

Speaking of the new book, Ahmed Kathrada, another old friend who spent decades in prison alongside Mandela, said “a lot has been written about him, but hardly anything in his own words. Now the genuine man comes to the fore, in his own words, so the world will have the opportunity to see that for the first time.”

Harris showed me the contents of archives Mandela brought in from his nearby home in the suburbs of Johannesburg.

There are faded photographs from the 1950s, cheerful apartheid-era tourism calendars that he filled in on Robben Island, letters to his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and a clutter of notebooks – one with Garfield the cat prominent in the top corner.

“He was very uncomfortable with his ‘saint’ image. The theme of this collection is that of a human being we can all identify with. A more engaging, more accessible human being, in some ways more attractive, in some ways less attractive ... not an icon beyond our reach,” said Harris, whose research left him with “a great relief to find out” that Mandela was not “just a hero”.

But the new book is not simply an attempt to set the record straight. For Harris, the political context is also vital.

South Africa, he maintains, has relied far too much on lazy “meta-narratives” about “the Rainbow Nation” and “Madiba Magic”.

“That mythology isn’t helpful. It’s precisely that thinking that has allowed us to remain blind to ¬inequalities (and to other failures in modern South Africa),” he said.

“We have to embrace Mandela’s flaws in order to develop an understanding of what he means to us as a country,” says Harris.

As for the “battle” over Mandela’s legacy, Harris is frank about the risk of an ugly power struggle between the Foundation, competing sides of Mandela’s extended family, and the various political organisations and interest groups “jockeying for position, contesting for space. That name has a value, that image has a value, and who gets to control it?” he asked.

But Harris acknowledged that “contestation” is a good, necessary thing, provided “it is done in a proper, seemly, dignified and liberationary way”.

He hoped the book would help show that “nobody has clean hands. Madiba acknowledges that”, and that no individual could secure total control of his legacy.

Maharaj agreed, arguing that as “the first icon of the information highway”, any attempt to control his legacy “will fail ... I’m not worried”.

Alth ough Mandela’s failing short-term memory and visible frailty concern many, Harris saw him a few days ago and said he was on good form, playfully fooling around with his signature as he signed a copy of the new book for the man who wrote the foreword, President Barack Obama.

In his own words
Here are just a handful of excerpts that jumped out at me during a brief tour of the archives.

» Regarding claims that he beat his first wife, Evelyn: “I caught hold of her and twisted her arm, enough for me to take this thing out (a red hot poker she was brandishing) ... that’s all.”

» Letters to Winnie from prison: “I know in you the devastating beauty and charm which 10 stormy years of married life have not chilled .?.?. My longing for you .?.?. If I could be on your side and squeeze you ... I feel as if I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone and soul, so bitter I am to be completely powerless to help you in the rough and fierce ordeals you are going through.”

» Letter to his daughter from prison: “Once again our beloved mummy has been arrested and now she and daddy are away in jail. My heart bleeds as I think of her sitting in some police cell far away from home ... longing for her little ones. It may be many months or even years before you see her again ... Do you see now what a brave mummy we have?”

» Asked in an interview about whether he thought Winnie might be having affairs while he was in prison:

“One must not be inquisitive ... I resigned myself to the fact that I had no opportunity for sexual expression and I could deal with that ...”

» Letter to commanding officer in prison following his son’s death: “I wish to attend, at my own cost, the funeral proceedings and to pay my last respects to his memory.

It is my earnest hope that you will ... approach this request more humanely than you treated a similar application I made barely 10 months ago ... for leave to attend my mother’s funeral.”
» From his prison diaries: “Gossiping about others is certainly a vice, a virtue when about oneself.”
“Dreamt of Kgatho (his son) falling into ditch and injuring leg.”

“Raid by about 15 warders under w/o Barnard.”

“DDD syndrome: debility, dependency, dread.”

“It’s easy to hope, it’s the wanting that spoils it.”

“Milk for tea ... new blade .... Nescafé, mustard, coconut cookies, sandwich spread, marmite, Fray Bentos.”
» On meeting the playwright Arthur Miller: “Like all truly great men, he did not throw his weight about.”
» From the unfinished sequel to Long Walk to Freedom: “As a young man I combined all the weaknesses, errors and indiscretions of a country boy ... I relied on arrogance to hide my weaknesses.

“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 early definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

» On Queen Elizabeth: “She is a fine lady ... She has a wonderful sense of humour ... She was just completely at ease ... also very sharp. Very sharp ... I formed a good impression of her.”

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