The phenomenon that is the Nelson Mandela publishing industry had an unpromising start. When the great man was encouraged by comrades to write his memoirs during his long nights imprisoned on Robben Island, they had to beg him to include any details about his personal life. His response – unsurprisingly, one might think, given that he was raised at the feet of traditional rural chiefs and then trained in the Victorian precepts of English missionaries – was tart. It was more than a decade into his 27-year incarceration and the plan was to release the book on his 60th birthday in 1978. He wrote in secret at night before smuggling his drafts to his lieutenants for their comments. Mac Maharaj, one of his closest confidants over the years, recalls a chilly exchange when he broached the idea of spicing up the text with more personal details and even emotion. The conversation continued on lines wearily familiar to many an editor over the years: “Madiba [Mandela’s clan name by which he is known across South Africa], this thing is shaping up to be a f***ing political instrument,” Maharaj recalls telling Mandela. When he went on to urge Mandela to write about the break-up of his first marriage and his relationship with his second wife, Winnie, Mandela said curtly, “I don’t discuss that with young boys like you.” (Maharaj was then in early middle age.)
After more senior colleagues talked to the ANC titan he relented and one night sent a note to Maharaj. “In the section about the break-up of my marriage you should insert: ‘And then I led a thoroughly immoral life,’” Mandela wrote. And that was that.
For his editors, his reticence was only part of the problem. Maharaj took a copy of the manuscript with him when he was released in the late 1970s, more than a decade before Mandela walked free in 1990. It was little more than a meaty political tract detailing the turbulent internal ANC politics of the 1950s and 1960s which led to the dramatic decision to abandon non-violent protests and adopt an armed struggle. The text was used by Mandela on his release from prison as the foundation of his autobiography. But in the early 1990s rumours circulated in literary and media circles in Johannesburg that the manuscript was all but unreadable. The project was in disarray. Into the breach stepped an American journalist, Richard Stengel, now the editor of Time Magazine and – as it happens – author, nearly two decades later, of the best of a series of new books on Mandela.
Continue reading in Financial Times