Nelson Mandela

Conversations with Myself

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 January, 2011, 12:00am

Conversations with Myself
by Nelson Mandela Pan
MacMillan HK$325

Much has been written about South Africa's first black president, Nelson Mandela. His official biography, The Long Walk to Freedom, was a best- seller. There's no doubt that Mandela is a remarkable man who has a lot of wisdom to offer those interested in his life. He fought for equality and freedom for the majority blacks in South Africa when the cruel regime of apartheid was fully entrenched. When he started on his life's course, a just and equal society was a distant, apparently impossible dream. But the dream became reality through the dedication, persistence, courage and foresight of men like Mandela.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in the Transkei, a rural and remote part of South Africa where tribal chiefs still rule. He was educated in a Christian school, attended Fort Hare university where he read law, and went to work in Johannesburg, the city of gold. He joined the African National Congress and, after it was banned, he pushed for the formation of an armed wing, Umkhontho we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), to turn the struggle violent. It was, apparently, always his aim to limit targets to government installations and restrict the loss of life as much as possible. He spent 27 years in prison in a system that was petty and cruel, yet when he was released he worked to heal the country of its racial rifts, bring it together and move forward.

Conversations with Myself is touted as being a more personal account of the events which changed history than The Long Walk to Freedom. It is a scrapbook, compiled from notes, interviews, diary entries, letters and excerpts from a second biography.

While it provides interesting insight into some of his decisions, for those without an intimate knowledge of the forces which forged this man, it is a puzzling and often trivial collection of apparently random thoughts and notes. Some might see Mandela's record of his weight as a poetic juxtaposition of the mundane with the extraordinary prose, but these notes are at best annoying space filler and at worst add to the fog of information.

Enlightening glimpses of the man and his thoughts are few but they are memorable. For instance, he writes in a letter to wife Winnie about how people are judged: 'The suspicious will always be tormented by suspicion, the credulous will ever be ready to lap up everything from oo-thobela sikutyele [gossip mongers] , while the vindictive will use the sharp axe instead of the soft feather duster. But the realist, however shocked and disappointed by the frailties of those he adores, will look at human behaviour from all sides, and objectively, and will concentrate on those qualities in a person which are edifying, which lift your spirit [and] kindle one's enthusiasm to live.'

Although there are extensive notes, cross references and appendices, the constant page turning is tiresome and unrewarding. The constant insertions of pictures of the handwritten text being read means the worthwhile content makes up only about a quarter of the book.

But for anyone who knows Mandela the book's humility will echo the man's character perfectly. 'My general impression, after reading several autobiographies, is that an autobiography is not merely a catalogue of events and experiences in which a person has been involved, but that it also serves as some blueprint on which others may well model their own lives,' he writes. 'This book has no such pretensions as it has nothing to leave behind. ... 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.' For all the tomes written about Mandela, very few chronicle his private thoughts and his reasoning processes during his remarkable life. We're not short of material about the man by any means, and Conversations with Myself adds to the heap.

But it's not complete. Those with questions about what Mandela knew about his militant wife's actions, whether or not he really approved of her reign of terror are not completely answered. He denies ever supporting her speech in which she called for the necklacing of enemies, the horrific method of murder which involved igniting petrol-soaked tyres around the heads of the victims. Mandela eventually divorced Winnie but in this book we are not told why. We're not even told of the decision.

So unless you are intimately familiar with Mandela's life and the history of South Africa's revolution there is little to attract in this offering. If you are hoping for answers to the more puzzling aspects of the enigmatic man, Mandela remains a closed book.