The sinner who kept on trying

Nelson Mandela’s private records reveal his magnanimity

The sinner who kept on trying

Martin Roemers/Panos/ Trevor Samson/AFP/Getty Images

The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself; it gives you the opportunity to look daily into your conduct, to overcome the bad and develop what is good in you. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.
—Nelson Mandela, in a letter from Robben Island Prison to his second wife, Winnie, in Kroonstad Prison, Feb. 1, 1975

For a figure of the political stature of Nelson Mandela to release a mass of personal records to a group of editors, to select from as they wished for inclusion in his new book, Conversations With Myself, is nothing short of astonishing. That’s not the sort of thing politicians do—giving up not only overt censorship of sensitive matters, but any opportunity for score-settling or late-in-life expressions of regret (however perfunctory) for past errors. But then Mandela, 92, one of the giants of 20th-century history, is not a typical politician. The entire concept of making public what’s become known as the Mandela archive only works because of who Nelson Mandela is: a man who emerged from 28 years in apartheid prisons not consumed with understandable anger and bitterness, not determined to oppress the oppressors, but committed to national reconciliation in South Africa.

The book’s literary inspiration is more than 1,800 years old, and some of the eloquence found in it, almost always when Mandela writes of his personal pain—“I feel I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone and soul, so bitter am I to be completely powerless to help you,” he wrote Winnie in 1970—seems almost a tribute to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. (Certainly the title is: Mandela’s thorough classical education made him well aware that the Roman emperor always referred to his Meditations by a Greek phrase that translates as “thoughts addressed to himself.”) But for all the stoic soul-searching and worry over loved ones, what is most striking about the Mandela revealed in Conversations is his humanity and his willingness to see good in anyone, even in his jailers.

The raw material for the book is no vast presidential paper trail, but the relatively scant accounts that survive from a life spent under political oppression, on the run or in prison.

Mandela’s editors—a mix of archivists, scholars, publishers and political associates—tapped four main sources. First are the jail letters: the prison authorities didn’t pass on everything Mandela wrote, and even less of what was sent him, but they kept copies of everything. There are also two series of intimate taped conversations. Some are so relaxed that Mandela enters into reverie, literally talking to himself. Both are related to his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, one series with editor Richard Stengel, the other with old comrade and unofficial fact-checker Ahmed Kathrada. Then there are the notebooks Mandela kept before and after his prison decades, and, finally, the draft of an unfinished sequel to the 1994 memoir.

Whatever the source—letters to his children or associates, conversations with Stengel or Kathrada—Mandela is consumed with treating everyone with respect, maintaining trust and keeping people united, as part of the anti-apartheid coalition, as friends, even (in his days as a lawyer faced with divorce cases) as spouses. “Criticism must be dignified, kept within a certain frame, because we are builders.” An important elder who dismissed a suggestion made by Mandela must not be described as “haughty,” Mandela told friends; let it merely be said that it was a “disappointment” that agreement couldn’t be reached. A supposed ally who was too intimidated to speak up in support is described by Mandela as “very diplomatic, but very reliable when you take a decision with him.” And trust was even more important in dealing with the enemy, no matter what the provocations to be overcome. “I am working now,” Mandela told Stengel in the late ’90s, “with the same people who threw me into jail, persecuted my wife, hounded my children from one school to the other, and I am one of those saying, ‘Let us forget the past, and think of the present.’ ”

There is as much personal as political in the book, including a few contentious matters.

Mandela’s first marriage, to Evelyn Mase, ended in acrimony, the editors note in their commentary, causing “considerable unhappiness in the family down the years.” It was a necessary explanation, given the editors’ choice to include a single reference to Mase: Mandela telling Kathrada that, contrary to Evelyn’s claim, he never “took her by the throat.” What happened, Mandela said, was that she tried to burn his face with a red-hot poker and he twisted her arm until she dropped it. And the editors found room, too, for humour. Mandela and Kathrada reminisce about a story from the potato boycott of 1959, called to protest working conditions on the farms. At one meeting, Oliver Tambo, a key figure in the anti-apartheid struggle, absent-mindedly brought in a meal of fish and chips. Look, someone said, the deputy president of the African National Congress is breaking the boycott. Mandela mimics an appalled Tambo yelling, “Take this thing away, take it away,” but it was too late, Mandela concludes as he dissolves into laughter, “Oliver had already eaten it.”

In his 28 years as South Africa’s chief political prisoner, Mandela passed from jail conditions so brutal (on Robben Island) that warders routinely strip-searched and physically abused prisoners, and so petty that they rarely passed on his birthday cards to his children, to a virtual lap of luxury in the final stretch, as the tide began to turn against the apartheid regime.

At Victor Verster prison, Mandela records how the minister of justice personally showed up to deliver “some nice, very expensive wines.” There was a swimming pool too; why, a man could almost feel free, Mandela slyly writes, if he wasn’t “surrounded by barbed wire and a security wall.” Through it all Mandela constantly, as he notes on more than one occasion, met jailers he respected, primarily because they thought like him: practical men who knew the tables could turn, and that what they meted out today, good or bad, could rebound. But for Mandela, there was more to some of them than political calculation, and at times his generous response went beyond formal courtesy.

Talking to Stengel about the pleasant conditions at Victor Verster, Mandela recalled warrant officer Jack Swart, whose job it was to cook and clean up for him. “I offered to wash the dishes,” remembers the soon-to-be president of South Africa, “and he refused.” But Mandela “literally forced him to allow me to do the dishes and we established a very good relationship.”
By this point Mandela is no longer really talking to Stengel but conversing with himself. “A really nice chap, warder Swart, a very good friend of mine.” Then, snapping back to the present, Mandela turns again to Stengel. “In fact, man, just give me a plain sheet of paper because I must phone the commissioner of prisons and just phone [Swart] again, man.” As much as any single entry in this wide-ranging 21st-century Meditations, that story of prisoner and guard captures Nelson Mandela, and the magnanimity he brought his country when it was needed most.

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