|“Conversations with Myself” by Nelson Mandela. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. $28.00
Twenty years ago, Nelson Mandela walked away from prison a free man.
For his relentless resistance to apartheid, Mandela had been incarcerated for nearly three decades on charges of sabotage designed to overthrow the South African government. But after his 1990 release, Mandela, as head of the African National Congress, worked furiously with South African President F.W. de Klerk to dismantle the country’s brutal apartheid policies. The two were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
The next year, in 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. For these heroic victories, Mandela has long been an icon of justice and reconciliation, and has been celebrated as one of the greatest statesmen in history.
While his political persona is well known to the world, especially after the 1994 publication of his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” the inner world of Mandela has remained elusive — until recently.
With this year’s publication of “Conversations with Myself,” a never-before-seen collection of writings from Mandela’s personal archive, readers can now peer into the private life of the man behind the legend.
The new book has its roots in the 2004 opening of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue, which aimed to compile Mandela’s archive. The next year, the team began collecting pieces of the archive — including papers Mandela himself gave — and dating, contextualizing and assembling them.
The archive now spans 80 years of Mandela’s life, and draws upon prison letters, personal diaries, calendars, notebooks, transcriptions of recorded conversations with friends and colleagues and a draft of the unpublished sequel to “Long Walk to Freedom.” “Conversations with Myself” is just a selection from the thousands of pages of archived personal documents.
“Here he is not the icon or saint elevated far beyond the reach of ordinary mortals,” said Verne Harris, project leader of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue, about the book. “Here he is like you and me.”
While the collection clearly reveals Mandela’s humanity, his flaws and his weaknesses, it also sheds light on the depth of wisdom and commitment to justice the leader possessed — even in the most difficult of times.
Composing a letter to his wife Winnie from prison in 1970, Mandela wrote, “To a freedom fighter hope is what a life belt is to a swimmer — a guarantee that one will keep afloat and free from danger.”
Five years later, still in prison, Mandela again mused to his wife, “In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education ... But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being.
“Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others — qualities which are within easy reach of every soul — are the foundation of one’s spiritual life,” he continued. “At least, if for nothing else, the [prison] cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps trying.”
But “Conversations with Myself” also reveals many of the forgotten aspects of Mandela’s political life. In the early 1960s, he became leader of the African National Congress’ armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or MK for short, and in this role, organized and fundraised for sabotage campaigns against government and military targets. The archived documents remind the reader that Mandela did not support non-violence on principle, but viewed it only as a tactic. In a conversation with Richard Stengel, an American journalist who helped compose “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela explained, “When the only way of making a forward movement, of solving problems, is the use of force: when peaceful methods become inadequate. That is a lesson of history, right down the centuries and ... in every part of the world.”
In 2004, at the age of 85, Nelson Mandela announced his retirement from public life. And while the world no longer benefits from his work as a politician and activist, his words will continue to inspire for generations to come.
“No matter how much he is seen as an icon, a teddy bear, a grandfather of the world, he himself has always been at pains to say that he is just a human being,” said Sahm Venter, senior researcher for the archival team.
“One of the greatest gifts he has to give us has come through very clearly in this book, and that is that we don’t need to hold him on a pedestal and look at and admire him; we can learn from him. If he could have approached his life and its many trials in the way he has, we can too.”