In many ways, the publication of this work represents a historic event. In line with the memories of great figures of the twentieth century but according to an original process, Nelson Mandela gives us a precious amount of information about his incredible personal and political journey. Complementary work of his famous A long way to freedom published in 1994, Conversations with myselfeverything to date and resonates like a distant echo of Thoughts for myself of Emperor Marcus Aurelius ...
Genesis of an original work
As we know, Nelson Mandela has, since the Rivonia trial (1962), been the object and author of a whole, particularly diverse biographical literature. Within it stands out his autobiography (A long way to freedom), published in 1994, the result of a collective work begun during his long detention on Robben Island. Nonetheless, these documents, despite their obvious interest, sought to portray the public figure as the leader of the ANC and the first president of post-apartheid South Africa.
Conversations with myself this is original, that he opts for a different point of view, pertaining to the intimate. We are dealing here with a private Mandela who did not hesitate to deliver certain parts of his correspondence and his most personal reflections. Here comes to us, the man beyond political myth.
The origin of this book dates back to 2004, when the Nelson Mandela Center for Memory and Dialogue was inaugurated. One of the center's priorities from the outset was the collection of archives, relating to "Madiba. (Mandela's tribal name). A work led by Verne Harris (director of the center), who quickly realized the magnitude of the task at hand.
Scattered and disparate, the many documents left by Mandela were the subject of systematic research by a team of distinguished archivists. From this work emerged the idea of making a compilation, intended to give an alternative image of the South African leader. It is also interesting to note that the latter will not directly associate with its writing.
In the end, four main sources were selected to write this book.
1: The letters written by Nelson Mandela in prison. These are actually drafts of the latter (scrutinized by censorship by the guards and often not delivered to their recipients), written on two notebooks that were stolen from him in 1971. Mandela did not recover them until 33 years later ...
2: A series of recorded interviews, mainly with Richard Stengel for the drafting of a long road to freedom, but also with Ahmed Kathrada, essential cellmate of Mandela. These particularly relaxed exchanges sometimes lift the veil on the way in which Madiba sought to shape her public image.
3: Mandela's notebooks. Whether these were written before 1962, or those from his presidential period, they provide a startling glimpse of the activist and leader in action. Whether it is the preparation of his speeches and his impressions of his numerous meetings, we can detect the formation and evolution of his political thought.
4: The never-ending sequel to a Long road to freedom. In manuscript form, she gives us an original overview of the last months of her presidency, in the form of a will to post-apartheid South Africa.
Structure and content of the book
The 484 pages of Conversations with myself, are organized into four chronological parts preceded by a preface and an introduction.
A somewhat obligatory and agreed figure, the preface signed by the President of the United States, Barack Obama, reveals all the admiration that the latter feels for the man who was one of the symbols of the struggle for racial equality. We also discover an American president delighted to be able to discover the man beyond the myth forged by the media, which is perhaps not innocent.
The Introduction by Verne Harris returns methodically and concisely to the origins of this work and its scope, which give it a unique place in the many works dealing with the memoirs of great men.
The first part has for interest to return on the roots and the formation of the young Mandela. Figure of a certain globalized good conscience, the South African leader is placed here in the context of his origins. We discover his feelings about traditional African societies and the roles of local institutions (especially chieftaincy and royalty, because we must not forget that Mandela is also an aristocrat). This part is also an opportunity to review its adaptation to urban and Western modernity.
The second part focuses on the emergence of Nelson Mandela as a political figure (period 1941-1962). We are witnessing, through the lens, the structuring of the ANC in the fight against apartheid (a policy of separate racial development that became reality in 1948). It is also the time of maturity for Madiba, especially at the family level, among other things through her second union with the very controversial Winnie Mandela.
The third part, certainly the most emblematic, looks back on the long period of incarceration which made Mandela the most famous prisoner in the world. From the sordid jails of Robben Island to the comfortable bungalow of Victor Verster (where Mandela spent his last months as a prisoner, during his negotiations with the South African authorities) is exposed there the harsh and touching daily life of the one who will emerge. as an essential interlocutor for white power. Confronted with the brutality of the racist system and with terrible personal suffering, Madiba reveals himself to be of great humanity, especially in the place of his jailers.
The fourth part, for its part, looks back on Nelson Mandela as father of the new South Africa, and in particular on his presidential mandate. Perhaps the most consensual of all, this part nevertheless offers us an original glimpse into the daily life of a political leader who became head of state, more or less against his will, and in a very violent initial context.
No doubt, Conversations with myself is a must-read document for anyone interested in South African history and Nelson Mandela. Hybrid work, autobiographical without really being, halfway between memory and history, it offers a refreshing glimpse into this great figure of the 20e century.
We can only admire the coherence of the thought of this man who was subjected to severe tests for so many years. Yet presented here in these most trivial aspects, his experience in prison nonetheless remains an example of retreat and adherence to humanist ideals, free from all hatred (which can frankly leave you speechless). In many ways, the Mandela man is found to conform to the Madiba myth.
Formally and stylistically, although varied and almost baroque, this mixture of intimate letters, hastily scribbled notes and various meditations, is particularly pleasant to read, sparing emotions and reflections (as well as surprising humor. ). The fact remains that historians may find fault with such a juxtaposition of heterogeneous documents of very unequal value.
We can also criticize this book for ignoring some gray areas in the life of the great man. Thus the process leading to the creation of theUmkhonto we Sizwe and therefore the adoption of a strategy of armed struggle by the ANC is the subject of only brief passages. Mandela was, however, one of the main and sometimes controversial architects. On the other hand, we may be surprised at the little material devoted to Winnie Mandela and his involvement in various acts of violence and corruption. His divorce from Nelson (effective in 1996 after four years of separation) and his reasons, are thus avoided. Finally, we hardly profit from Madiba's reflections on the other current leaders of the ANC, which offer a mixed picture of this movement.
Either way, Conversations with myself, deserves to be included in the libraries of all those for whom the journey and work of Nelson Mandela represent a source of inspiration. An exceptional document on an exceptional man, this book is more than a lesson in history: a lesson in life.
Conversations with myself, by Nelson Mandela under the direction of Jean-Louis Festjens. Editions de la Martinière, 2010.