Mandela, still the enigma

Julius Malema take note. Nelson Mandela indeed called for nationalisation of South African industry while in prison, as the youth leader is fond of pointing out, but he did a radical about-face on returning to the real world.

Nelson MandelaConversations with Myself, published this week, records Mandela’s reaction to the fallout from his prison declaration.

In a conversation with American editor Richard Stengel, he describes how the concerns of the business community “set one thinking, because the one thing that is important is — to have the support of business”.

His encounter with the world’s industrial leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos sealed his conversion.

Although it would not be removed altogether from ANC policy, he told Stengel: “I realised, as never before, that if we want investments we will have to review nationalisation — we had to remove the fear of business that their assets will be nationalised.”

During his term as president the policy was quietly ditched—a shift highlighted by the 1994 “six-pack” announcement by his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, which included privatisation as a key government objective.

The impact of local, American and world business leaders on Mandela’s economic thinking in the early 1990s, highlighting his pragmatic, non-ideological approach to government and willingness to bend the sacred precepts of the Freedom Charter, is one of the few nuggets of new fact in Conversations with Myself.

Another, highlighted in press reports this week, was his deep reluctance to lead South Africa’s first post-1994 government because he felt that he was too old.

Typically, he allowed himself to be talked round by senior colleagues, who reminded him that he was subject to the ANC’s collective leadership.

The book also includes some historical sidelights which are new, at least, to this reader.
They include the fact that, in pressing for the landmark move from passive to armed resistance, he ran into the opposition not only of the Gandhian Monty Naicker and Christian pacifist Albert Luthuli, but also of South African Communist Party stalwart Moses Kotane.

Kotane was certainly right to argue that revolutionary conditions did not then exist in South Africa, but one suspects that his cautiousness really sprang from years of taking Comintern (Communist International) instructions not to rock the boat.

Verne Harris of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue suggests in the introduction to the new book that, while Long Walk to Freedom was essentially the work of an editorial collective, Conversations reveals the thinking and deep nature of Mandela the man.

In supposedly penetrating the veil, the centre drew on four untapped sources: Mandela’s prison letters, taped interviews with Stengel and fellow Rivonia triallist Ahmed Kathrada, Mandela’s notebooks and an unfinished sequel to Long Walk.

But, in truth, Conversations tells us little about Mandela’s personal qualities and take on the world that cannot be gleaned from his autobiography. It contains some interesting anecdotal material, but this merely amplifies one’s existing sense of the leader and the human being.

The prison letters, for example, drive home the torment that this intensely emotional and family-conscious man felt over the police persecution of Winnie Mandela and his inability to protect her. But this is a clear theme of the autobiography, where he tells of “the many sleepless nights” and “mental torture” he suffered on her account.

Conversations sometimes leaves one with the uncomfortable sense of sparse source material stretched to breaking point.

It devotes no fewer than 50 pages to Mandela’s gnomic jottings on calendars he used on Robben Island and Pollsmoor and Victor Verster prisons, for example, which tell us very little and sometimes descend into comic anticlimax (“21 February 1986: Spent another 45 minutes with very important personage, Gen Obasanjo. Prior to this saw film: ‘Boetie gaan grens toe’.”)

Mandela has three endearingly old-fashioned traits that make it difficult, in Harris’s words, to “penetrate (his) very formal public persona”: he is tight-lipped about his love life, he refuses to settle scores in public (“I shall stick to our vow: never, never, under any circumstances to say anything unbecoming of the other,” he writes to Fatima Meer) and he will not discuss the internal dynamics of the ANC, to which he remains unswervingly loyal.

There are interesting asides on sexual abstention in prison that highlight his self-mastery (“brain before blood”, as he terms it), and on his feelings about having a wife on the outside who was in contact with other men. But anyone hoping that Conversations will illuminate the failure of his first marriage or his divorce from Winnie will be disappointed.

Equally, nothing here sheds new light on the controversies of the transition to democracy or his presidency—his troubled relationship with FW de Klerk, for example, or his choice of Mbeki over Cyril Ramaphosa as his political heir.

In his introduction Harris draws a grandiose parallel between Conversations and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. This is off the mark, for the reason that Mandela is not a philosopher or littérateur—nor would he claim to be. Many of his thoughts are simple and homespun, often to the point of triteness.

It is his life and leadership that really matter and the timeless virtues of endurance, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, sincerity and humility that they embody.

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