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Review of Nelson Mandela's 'Conversations with Myself'

Peter Wuteh Vakunta reviews Nelson Mandela’s ‘Conversations with Myself’. He underlines that ‘Countless books have been written and will continue to be written about this memorable man, but this one towers above them all on account of the intimacies and intricacies it contains.’

Nelson Mandela’s ‘Conversations with Myself’ takes the reader through the meanders in the life of a man widely acclaimed as the world’s longest-serving political prisoner. The story of Mandela’s 27-year incarceration on Robben Island, Pollsmoor and Victor Verster prisons has become the creation myth of the Rainbow Nation. In 454 pages, the author retraces his life from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of power. Born to Nosekeni Fanny and Nkosi Mpakakanyiswa in 1918 in Mveso in the Transkei, the adult Mandela later escapes an arranged marriage and moves to Johannesburg where he finds work in the gold mines as a night watchman. If this book reads like a horror movie it is because it documents the life of a man checkered by vicissitudes. The narrative recounted in this book – the story told by Nelson Mandela himself – is not the tale of an infallible man ordained by the gods for inevitable triumph. As he puts it, ‘In real life we deal not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions…’ (xvi) ‘Conversations with Myself’ is the tale of a man prepared to risk his life for an ideal he believed in; a man who worked very hard to lead the kind of life that would make the world a better place.

‘Conversations with Myself’ is partitioned into four parts on the basis of theme, importance and immediacy. Each section sheds light on a watershed moment in the life of Mandela. In part one, entitled ‘Pastoral’, the writer adumbrates his informal schooling and the impact it had on his adult life. He observes that he was methodically tutored in the ways of his people: ‘Like all Xhosa children I acquired knowledge by asking questions to satisfy my curiosity as I grew up, learnt through experience, watched adults and tried to imitate what they did’ (p. 9). In his informal schooling, culture, ritual and taboo played a crucial role and Mandela came to possess a fair amount of information in this regard. He perceives oral traditions as the bedrock of informal grooming: ‘It is always a great moment when I listen to an expert on our true history, culture, legends and traditions’ (p. 23). Mandela notes with regret the fact that the little progress he made in acquiring indigenous knowledge ‘was later undermined by the type of formal education I received which tended to stress individual more than collective values’ (p. 10).

Part two of ‘Conversations with Myself’, labelled ‘Drama’, sheds ample light on Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggle. The reader is made privy to the infamous Rivonia trial during which he reiterated vehemently the ideals for which he stood and for which he is prepared to die if need be. This book documents not just the vital role Mandela played in the anti-apartheid struggle but also the crucial importance of the support he got from his comrades in the struggle, namely, Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Joe Slovo, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Ruth First, Albertina Sisulu and more. This section of the book is interesting in several respects but the aspect that captures the reader’s attention the most is the role played in the liberation struggle by the MK (Umkhonto we Siswe), the armed wing of the African National Congress. Mandela became commander-in-chief of the MK after undergoing military training in Morocco and Ethiopia. As he puts it, ‘… the perfection was in Ethiopia because I spent two months there and I was taught now how to fire various guns [at] different targets’ (p. 92).

In ‘Conversations with Myself’ Mandela offers a blueprint for successful revolutions in Africa and beyond (pp. 98–108). What follows is a synopsis of vital matters to be borne in mind in the conception and implementation of a successful revolution:

- Good organisation is critical. There must be an absolute guarantee that all precautions have been taken to ensure success. There must be a network in the country, first and foremost. Many uprisings fail because the idea was not shared by all parties. An uprising that is local must be avoided. A revolution must be organised in such a way as to ensure its continuity. You must have a general plan that governs all daily operations. In addition to the general plan that deals with the total situation, you must have a plan for the next three weeks or even months. There must be no action for the sake of action. Every individual action must be done to implement the strategic plan. Your tactical plans must be governed by strategy, and should cover such things as the political consciousness of the masses of the people, as well as the mobilisation of allies in the international field.
- Timing is of the essence. The date of an uprising must be chosen when it is absolutely certain that the revolution will succeed and it must be related to other factors. Choosing date(s) should be influenced by psychological opportunity. Conception of when you begin the struggle will determine failure or success of the revolution. To start a revolution is easy but to continue and maintain it is most difficult. The duty of revolutionary leaders should be to make a thorough analysis of the situation before a start is given a blessing.
- Take stock of human capital. Plan and provide for replacements. Right from the beginning, you must show the enemy that your strength is inexhaustible. Take into account the fact that the longer the revolution lasts, the more the massacres continue and the more the people will get tired. You must plan and provide for replacements simply because in combat you will lose combatants. You must have the courage to accept the fact that there will be reprisals against the population. But you must try and avoid this by a careful selection of targets. It is better to attack targets that are faraway from the population than those that are near. Targets must be as near as possible to the enemy. You will break the revolution if you do not take the necessary precautions.
- Galvanise the entire population. Seek the support of the entire population with a perfect balance of social classes. The base of your support should be among the common people, poor and illiterate, but the intellectuals must be brought in as well. In all activities and operations, there must be a thorough diffusion of the intelligentsia and the masses of the people – peasants, labourers, workers in the cities and more. There must be perfect harmony between the external delegation of the revolutionary movement and the high command. Both must consist of similar and equally developed personnel. Your plan should be to destroy the legality of the government and to institute that of the people. The underlying objective should be that your forces will develop and grow while those of the enemy disintegrate.

At a time when the global community finds itself in the throes of social uprisings – with two historic revolutions (in Tunisia and Egypt) now events of the past; some ongoing in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, and many more to come, all and sundry are brainstorming incessantly on the ingredients that make or mar a revolution. And who else to turn to for dependable elucidation but Africa’s legendary revolutionary, the illustrious Nelson Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela, AKA Madiba? The didactic value of his book resides in the free lessons he gives to world leaders good and bad; people entrusted with the crucial task of governance. To these people in authority, Mandela offers the following sound advice (pp. 402–03):

- A leader should encourage and welcome a free and unfettered exchange of views.
- A leader’s first task is to create a vision. Their second is to create a following to help implement the vision and to manage the process through effective teams.
- The duty of a real leader is to identify those good men and women and give them tasks of serving the community.
- A ruler must work hard to ease tensions, especially when dealing with sensitive and complicated issues. Extremists normally thrive when there is tension, and pure emotion tends to supersede rational thinking.
- A real leader uses every issue, no matter how serious and sensitive, to ensure that at the end of the debate we should emerge stronger and more united than ever before.
- In every dispute you eventually reach a point where neither party is altogether right or altogether wrong, when compromise is the only alternative for those who seriously want peace and stability.
- Men and women, all over the world, right down the centuries, come and go. Some leave nothing behind, not even their names. It would seem that they never existed at all.
- History never stops to play tricks, even with seasoned and world famous freedom fighters. Frequently erstwhile revolutionaries have easily succumbed to greed, and the tendency to divert public resources for personal enrichment ultimately overwhelms them. By amassing vast personal wealth, and by betraying the noble objectives which made them famous, they virtually desert the masses of the people and join the former oppressors, who enrich themselves by mercilessly robbing the poorest of the poor.

In part three of the book entitled ‘Epic’, Mandela discusses his peregrinations from prison to prison. In an attempt to break his moral fibre and thwart his unrelenting fight for the annihilation of the nefarious apartheid system, the apartheid authorities moved him from one prison to another during the 27 years he spent behind bars. First, he was imprisoned on Robben Island (situated in Table Bay, seven kilometres off the coast of Cape Town) from 1964–82. In 1982 he was transferred to Pollsmoor, a maximum-security prison located in the suburb of Tokai in Cape Town. Finally, he was moved to Victor Verster, a low-security prison located between Paarl and Franschhoek in the Western Cape in 1988 where he remained until his release in 1990. Mandela’s life as a prisoner is depicted as an ordeal: ‘Conditions on Robben Island were … very harsh. The food was poor; the work was hard, the summers hot, the winters very cold and the warders brutal… Physical suffering was significant; psychological pain was worse. The petty-mindedness of the authorities was unrelenting’ (pp. 128–29).

Part four, dubbed ‘Tragicomedy’, chronicles Mandela’s life as the first democratically elected black president of South Africa. This section harbours a few surprises for the reader, not least of which is the fact that Mandela never really wanted to become president: ‘My installation as the first democratically elected President of the Republic of South Africa was imposed on me much against my advice… I, however, made it clear that I would serve for one term only. Shortly after I became president I publicly announced that I would serve one term and would not seek re-election’ (pp. 353–54). One character trait of Mandela that stands out in this book – an attribute that has endeared him to people across racial divides – is humility. Nelson Mandela is an extremely self-effacing person: ‘It will probably shock many people to discover how colossally ignorant I am about things the ordinary person takes for granted’ (p. 363).

In sum, ‘Conversations with Myself’ is the story of a living legend, a chronicle of the life of a man who lived by his own ideals. The book does not immortalise the man, Mandela, rather it portrays him as an epic hero. Countless books have been written and will continue to be written about this memorable man, but this one towers above them all on account of the intimacies and intricacies it contains. Written in conversational style, the book is an easy read. It is devoid of verbal sophistry.


* Nelson Mandela, [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.