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BOOK REVIEW: Conversations with Myself

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Mandela is known for playing two distinct roles in his lifetime. One was as Prisoner 466/64 on the infamous Robben Island (now a UN World Heritage Site); the other was becoming the first president of a democratic South Africa. He received worldwide accolades for making both performances memorable. Since 2009, July 18 has been declared the Nelson Mandela International Day for freedom, justice and democracy.

Mandela — described as an “obsessive record keeper”, can now add another chapter to his extensive legacy; one that will give the world an opportunity to use his own words as the key to decipher his original message. Conversations with Myself is a compilation of private papers, prison letters, speeches, taped conversations with a fellow prisoner (Ahmed Kathrada), excerpts of interviews given to TIME magazine editor Richard Stengel, and a draft of an unpublished sequel to his autobiography. They have been put together by Verne Harris — Project Leader (Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue). President Obama, an ardent admirer (one of many), has been chosen to write the foreword.

These documents provide useful insights into the life of a visionary who served a 27-year sentence, helped unite a land once torn by apartheid and demonstrated the healing power of reconciliation. Mandela ‘up close and personal’ cuts an impressive figure who hastens to push aside the halo many would like to confer on him. Since this is an unrehearsed presentation, it gives the world a unique opportunity to get reacquainted with one of the greatest icons of the present century, on his turf. His most remarkable characteristics (integrity, honour, magnanimity) take centre-stage while lesser known traits emerge from the shadows.

It is an extraordinarily moving portrait of a man shown to bear his heavy burden with ease: “....only the flesh and blood behind bars, I remain cosmopolitan in my outlook, in my thoughts I am as free as a falconeven as he makes eloquent arguments asking for release. Yet Mandela the man is fallible, he pleads guilty to lesser charges — of harbouring secret prejudices, of uncertainty, admitting that he always sees the good in others. Within these pages he confesses to battling with DDD (debility, dependency and dread). He is humble, claiming to be unworthy of penning his life story: “What a sweet euphuism for self-praise the English language has evolved! Autobiography.” He is proud, refusing to allow outsiders inside his private world.

Mandela the father yearns for his family; the freedom fighter in him gets frustrated watching good people sacrifice lives “on the fiendish altar of colour hatred”; the Wiseman counsels his kin not to harvest bitterness.

His concern for his family looms large in the narrative as he writes heartfelt letters to his children filled with beautiful passages where his optimism struggles to cut through the hopelessness knowing that these words might never reach their destination. He continues to fight for his rights with the only tools available, finding humour in the most desolate of places. At one point he dreams of inviting the magistrate to dinner while wryly observing the fact that paying for said dinner could well pose a problem.

Including Mandela’s prison correspondence provides an acute sense of his suffering. He dwells on his harrowing ordeal and details the “abuse of authority, systematic persecution”, which he concluded were officially sanctioned. Despite the grim circumstances, somehow the underlying message remains hopeful. The word ‘vengeance’ is missing from his vocabulary and he tries to sow the seeds of forgiveness in his family members. Throughout his ordeal he remains convinced that “the floods of personal disaster can never drown a determined revolutionary, nor can the cumulus of misery that accompany tragedy suffocate him.”

He offers similar words of encouragement to his wife, also imprisoned:

Those without a soul, no sense of national pride and no ideals to win can suffer neither humiliation nor defeat; can evolve no national heritage, are inspired by no sacred mission and can produce no national heroes or martyrs.”

One second he is the Sun Tzu of guerrilla warfare elaborating on the tactics used as a freedom fighter, or holding forth on the qualities of a good leader, and the next moment he can hardly contain his disappointment on missing a Tracy Chapman and Manhattan Brothers concert.

Equally interesting are his thoughts post-imprisonment that spell out, among other things, ways of dealing with fellow humans: “One tends to attract integrity and honour if that is how one regards those with whom one works,” adding that “public figures need to accept the integrity of other people until there is evidence to the contrary.

One last surprise: this Mandela uses a Garfield the Cat personalised notepaper.

It is all in here — the humour, the heartbreak and the hope. These are the pillars of Mandela’s life’s work from prison to presidency. These are the makings of a great leader. The cost of doing things the ‘Mandela Way’ has been high but so have the dividends and he remains a source of inspiration for many.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Pp 480; Rs 2,500

Images Courtesy of:


  1. Salam Afrah,

    thank you so much for this interesting books, I just read some paragraphs but I'll read it all.

    you know Afrah, We need like these writings in Arabic ...

    anyway, I follow u .... and reading ur updates, ok??

    thanks again

  2. WSA,

    Appreciate the feedback & kind words...

    The net can translate anything these days so making something 'Arabic' shdnt be that difficult..:)

    Enjoy the book.


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