Thursday, February 11, 2010

Conversations with Myself

Today is the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in South Africa. Having spent 27 years incarcerated it would be less than five more before the country elected him President. The same year that he became President, 1994, his famous autobiography Long Walk to Freedom was published. Now, in connection with the 20th anniversary of his release, Pan Macmillan is to publish a second autobiographical book, this time based on Mandela’s personal archive of diaries and letters.

Nelson Mandela was born in Qunu, a small village in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, in 1918. As a child he was groomed to become chief of his local tribe, however while at University of Fort Hare he became increasingly interested in politics. After being expelled for helping organise a strike, and being unwilling to return to his family, he moved to Johannesburg. There, he worked in a variety of jobs, became very active within the African National Congress (ANC), and completed a degree by correspondence. He then went on to study law, and, with his friend Oliver Tambo, set up the country’s first black law firm providing free or low-cost legal counsel.

In December 1956, Mandela and 150 others were arrested and charged with treason, but after a marathon trial lasting several years all were acquitted. Then came the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when the police opened fire on a crowd of black protesters and killed 69 of them. Thereafter, Mandela - who had been influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s policy of non-violence - became increasingly militant. In 1961, he took over the ANC’s armed wing, and coordinated sabotage campaigns against military and government targets. But, before very long, in August 1962, he was arrested, and initially sentenced to five years imprisonment. Further charges brought a much longer sentence. For 18 of his 27 years in prison, Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island.

While in jail, and despite his imprisonment, Mandela’s reputation grew to the point where he became, and then stayed, the most significant black leader in South Africa. With time, too, international pressure against South Africa’s apartheid regime increased to an extraordinary level. Although negotiations aimed at releasing Mandela were started by President P W Botha in 1985, it wasn’t until his replacement by President F W de Klerk that Mandela was finally released on 11 February 1990 - 20 years ago today.

Mandela returned almost immediately to the leadership of the ANC, and then guided it to an election victory in 1994. A year earlier, he and de Klerk had been jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1999, Mandela decided not to stand for a second term as President and retired. Since then, he has been engaged as an advocate for a variety of social and human rights organisations.

Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, published in 1994, is said to have sold over six million copies. (Excerpts can be read at the Open Book Systems archive.) Then, last autumn, on the eve of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Mandela’s literary agent Johny Geller at Curtis Brown sold the rights to a second autobiographical work, one to be based on Mandela’s personal archive of diaries, letters and other manuscripts.

Geller told The Bookseller: ‘What is so amazing is that [Mandela] wrote virtually every day of his life and kept all his notes. The book reveals the personal cost to him of his imprisonment on Robben Island and includes heartbreaking letters about the deaths of two of his children. It shows the personal side of this icon, his amazing humanity and wisdom. It is also a historical document which may bring about different interpretations of various events.’

Pan Macmillan won the auction for the new book and very quickly produced a flyer promising that the new book - to be titled Conversations with Myself - would be published this spring. It lists half-a-dozen source materials for the book, two of which are ‘journals kept while on the run in the early 1960s’, and ‘diaries and draft letters written in Robben Island and other prisons during 27 years of imprisonment’. Macmillan concludes on the flyer: ‘Not since the worldwide publication of his bestselling autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom . . . will there be such an important book.’

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