Nelson Mandela’s Farewell

Published The Globe and Mail, 13 October 2010

I spent the first three weeks of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison sitting in his back garden. “Smile, young lady!” he’d call and, eventually, he let me follow him around like a dazzled puppy as he loped through Soweto. “Are you in love with Zwelakhe?” he’d tease. Zwelakhe Sisulu was his press gatekeeper and I’d stare fixedly at him because I wanted an interview. Once in, though, things froze. I, the Life magazine reporter, was under strict orders to elicit his feelings. I’d recently not asked the Dalai Lama whether he missed sex, meaning that a reporter had to be sent all the way to Dharamsala, so I was on the spot.

“We …” he’d start. I’d frown. “Well, we …” he’d try. I’d look distressed. It was torture. In 1990, Mr. Mandela didn’t think of himself as an “I.” The most famous political prisoner in the world, the hero and hope of Africa, was a “we.”

Today, after working for 20 years with Bill Phillips, one of the most rigorous editors around, Mr. Mandela’s heart and mind are all the way open and, for the first time in Conversations with Myself (published this week), we see everything: heart, intellect, relationships, family, patriot, the whole of a man whose life is one of the most remarkable in history.

The seemingly inarticulate leader I met was, of course, anything but and, throughout his life, he jotted notes (“conditions to be borne in mind when starting a Rev(olution)”), kept a diary and wrote thousands of letters. Agile and funny, his comments range from the ingenuous “Gee whiz, the Pope is also an outstanding person!” to profound, almost Christian homilies to a deeply sophisticated political philosophy.

Mr. Mandela is 92, and the book is his farewell. It takes the reader from his childhood in the royal household of the Thembu tribe, through the classical schooling once given to the brightest in every former British colony, to city life, legal work, two marriages and increasing political involvement. He describes in some detail his choice to split with the African National Congress and become a leader of its armed wing, MK (translated as Spear of the Nation).

His prison letters are heart-wrenching. He was not permitted to bury his young son or his mother. When Winnie, his second wife, was jailed, their two young daughters were without parents. This pitched Mr. Mandela into despair: “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 in the rough and fierce ordeals you are going through.”

Richard Stengel, Mr. Mandela’s collaborator on Long Walk to Freedom, and Ahmed Kathrada, one of Mr. Mandela’s fellow prisoners, tease out the horrors of that imprisonment. The South African struggle was heroic and vicious by turns (Ruth First, the mother of one of my friends and an anti-apartheid activist, a woman Mr. Mandela still mourns, was blown up by a letter bomb sent by South African police), and Conversations illuminates all its stark and terrible beauty.

But it’s in Mr. Mandela’s political thinking that his book truly soars. He insists over and over that “we” want a non-racial culture, where all are equal: “At a time when some people are feverishly encouraging the growth of fractional forces, raising the tribe into the final and highest form of social organization, setting one national group against the other, cosmopolitan dreams are not only desirable but a bounden duty; dreams that stress the special unity that hold the freedom forces together …”

Conversations demonstrates why Mr. Mandela’s hand on the tiller meant that his revolution didn’t result in a liberation bloodbath, or at least not much of one. He’s still a collectivist, although, he claims, no longer a communist. And he doesn’t outright condemn the violence in today’s South Africa, the habit of which MK, in part, formed. But he repeatedly preaches empathy for one’s enemies, and his collectivism is so moored to individual liberty that it’s collectivism even a conservative can love.

If the world can create such a man in such a furnace, freedom for everyone is, indeed, possible.

Elizabeth Nickson is a writer living in Victoria.

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