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Conversations With Myself

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  • Copyright: 2010-10-11
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux
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Nelson Mandela is widely considered to be one of the most inspiring and iconic figures of our age. Now, after a lifetime of taking pen to paper to record thoughts and events, hardships and victories, he has bestowed his entire extant personal papers, which offer an unprecedented insight into his remarkable life. A singular international publishing event, Conversations with Myself draws on Mandela's personal archive of never-before-seen materials to offer unique access to the private world of an incomparable world leader. Journals kept on the run during the anti-apartheid struggle of the early 1960s; diaries and draft letters written in Robben Island and other South African prisons during his twenty-seven years of incarceration; notebooks from the postapartheid transition; private recorded conversations; speeches and correspondence written during his presidencya historic collection of documents archived at the Nelson Mandela Foundation is brought together into a sweeping narrative of great immediacy and stunning power. An intimate journey from Mandela's first stirrings of political consciousness to his galvanizing role on the world stage, Conversations with Myself illuminates a heroic life forged on the front lines of the struggle for freedom and justice. While other books have recounted Mandela's life from the vantage of the present, Conversations with Myself allows, for the first time, unhindered insight into the human side of the icon.

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Conversations with Myself
Chapter 1

‘I shall stick to our vow: never, never under any circumstances, to say anything unbecoming of the other…The trouble, of course, is that most successful men are prone to some form of vanity. There comes a stage in their lives when they consider it permissible to be egotistic and to brag to the public at large about their unique achievements. What a sweet euphemism for self-praise the English language has evolved! Autobiography…’


Excerpt from a letter to Fatima Meer, dated 1 March 1971.



I shall stick to our vow: never, never under any circumstances, to say anything unbecoming of the other…The trouble, of course, is that most successful men are prone to some form of vanity. There comes a stage in their lives when they consider it permissible to be egotistic and to brag to the public at large about their unique achievements. What a sweet euphemism for self-praise the English language has evolved! Autobiography, they choose to call it, where the shortcomings of others are frequently exploited to highlight the praiseworthy accomplishments of the author. I am doubtful if I will ever sit down to sketch my background. I have neither the achievements of which I could boast nor the skill to do it. If I lived on cane spirit every day of my life, I still would not have had the courage to attempt it. I sometimes believe that through me Creation intended to give the world the example of a mediocre man in the proper sense of the term. Nothing could tempt me to advertise myself. Had I been in a position to write an autobiography, its publication would have been delayed until our bones had been laid, and perhaps I might have dropped hints not compatible with my vow. The dead have no worries, and if the truth and nothing but the whole truth about them emerged, [and] the image I have helped to maintain through my perpetual silence was ruined, that would be the affair of posterity, not ours…I’m one of those who possess scraps of superficial information on a variety of subjects, but who lacks depth and expert knowledge on the one thing in which I ought to have specialised, namely the history of my country and people.


When a man commits himself to the type of life he has lived for 45 years, even though he may well have been aware from the outset of all the attendant hazards, the actual course of events and the precise manner in which they would influence his life could never have been clearly foreseeable in every respect. If I had been able to foresee all that has since happened, I would certainly have made the same decision, so I believe at least. But that decision would certainly have been far more daunting, and some of the tragedies which subsequently followed would have melted whatever traces of steel were inside me.


I was being groomed for the position of chieftaincy…but then ran away, you know, from a forced marriage…2That changed my whole career. But if I had stayed at home I would have been a respected chief today, you know? And I would have had a big stomach, you know, and a lot of cattle and sheep.


Most men, you know, are influenced by their background. I grew up in a country village until I was twenty-three, when I then left the village for Johannesburg. I was of course…going to school for the greater part of the year, come back during the June and December holidays – June was just a month and December about two months. And so all throughout the year I was at school…And then in [19]41 when I was twenty-three, I came to Johannesburg and learned…to absorb Western standards of living and so on. But…my opinions were already formed from the countryside and…you’ll therefore appreciate my enormous respect for my own culture – indigenous culture…Of course Western culture is something we cannot live without, so I have got these two strands of cultural influence. But I think it would be unfair to say this is peculiar to me because many of our men are influenced by that…I am now more comfortable in English because of the many years I spent here and I’ve spent in jail and I lost contact, you know, with Xhosa literature. One of the things which I am looking forward to when I retire is to be able to read literature as I want, [including] African literature. I can read both Xhosa and Sotho literature and I like doing that,3but the political activities have interfered…I just can’t read anything now and it’s one of the things I regret very much.


Nobody ever sat with me at regular intervals to give me a clear and connected account of the history of our country, of its geography, natural wealth and problems, of our culture, of how to count, to study weights and measures. 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. In this process an important role is played by custom, ritual and taboo, and I came to possess a fair amount of information in this regard…In our home there were other dependents, boys mainly, and at an early age I drifted away from my parents and moved about, played and ate together with other boys. In fact I hardly remember any occasion when I was ever alone at home. There were always other children with whom I shared food and blankets at night. I must have been about five years old when I began going out with other boys to look after sheep and calves and when I was introduced to the exciting love of the veld. Later when I was a bit older I was able to look after cattle as well…[A] game I enjoyed very much was what I call Khetha (choose-the-one-you-like)…We would stop girls of our age group along the way and ask each one to choose the boy she loved. It was a rule that the girl’s choice would be respected and, once she had selected her favourite, she was free to continue her journey escorted by the boy she had chosen. Nimble-witted girls used to combine and all choose one boy, usually the ugliest or dullest, and thereafter tease or bully him along the way…Finally, we used to sing and dance and fully enjoyed the perfect freedom we seemed to have far away from the old people. After supper we would listen enthralled to my mother and sometimes my aunt telling us stories, legends, myths and fables which have come down from countless generations, and all of which tended to stimulate the imagination and contained some valuable moral lesson. As I look back to those days I am inclined to believe that the type of life I led at my home, my experiences in the veld where we worked and played together in groups, introduced me at an early age to the ideas of collective effort. The little progress I made in this regard was later undermined by the type of formal education I received which tended to stress individual more than collective values. Nevertheless, in the mid 1940s when I was drawn into the political struggle, I could adjust myself to discipline without difficulty, perhaps because of my early upbringing.


The regent was not keen that I visit Qunu, lest I should fall into bad company and run away from school, so he reasoned. He would allow me only a few days to go home. On other occasions he would arrange for my mother to be fetched so that she could see me at the royal residence. It was always an exciting moment for me to visit Qunu and see my mother and sisters and other members of the family. I was particularly happy in the company of my cousin, Alexander Mandela, who inspired and encouraged me on questions of education in those early days. He and my niece, Phathiwe Rhanugu (she was much older than me), were perhaps the first members of our clan to qualify as teachers. Were it not for their advice and patient persuasion I doubt if I would have succeeded in resisting the attractions offered by the easy life outside the classroom. The two influences that dominated my thoughts and actions during those days were chieftaincy and the church. After all, the only heroes I had heard of at that time had almost all been chiefs, and the respect enjoyed by the regent from both black and white tended to exaggerate the importance of this institution in my mind. I saw chieftaincy not only as the pivot around which community life turned, but as the key to positions of influence, power and status. Equally important was the position of the church, which I associated not so much with the body and doctrine contained in the Bible but with the person of Reverend Matyolo. In this circuit he was as popular as the regent, and the fact that in spiritual matters he was the regent’s superior and leader, stressed the enormous power of the church. What was even more was that all the progress my people had made – the schools that I attended, the teachers who taught me, the clerks and interpreters in government offices, the agricultural demonstrators and policemen – were all the products of missionary schools. Later the dual position of the chiefs as representatives of their people and as government servants compelled me to assess their position more realistically, and not merely from the point of view of my own family background or of the exceptional chiefs who identified themselves with the struggle of their people. As descendants of the famous heroes that led us so well during the wars of dispossession and as the traditional leaders in their own right, chiefs are entitled to be treated with respect. But as agents of an oppressive government that is regarded as the enemy of the black man, the same chiefs are the objects of criticism and hostility. The institution of chieftaincy itself has been captured by the government and must now be seen as part of the machinery of oppression. My experiences also enable me to formulate a more balanced assessment of the role of the missionaries and to realise the folly of judging the issue simply in terms of relations with individual priests. Nevertheless, I have always considered it dangerous to underestimate the influence of both institutions amongst the people, and for this reason I have repeatedly urged caution in dealing with them.


Mandela’s Methodist Church card, 1930.


Soon after returning from prison I travelled down to E.L. [East London] and met Comrade Silumko Sokupa and the Regional Committee of the ANC [African National Congress] to acquaint myself with the situation in that area. In their briefing they informed me that King Zanesizwe Sandile of the Ngqikas would visit me at the hotel. I was shocked because that was a breach of protocol to ask the king to visit me at a hotel.

I instructed the committee to phone and inform the king that he should remain at the Palace, I would later come and pay a courtesy visit there. At that moment the king walked in. I apologised and pointed out that many of today’s youth were born and grew up in the urban areas. They know precious little about traditional leaders. It is not so much because of disrespect but ignorance which makes [them] unaware of protocol.

Heroes like the Khoi leader, Autshumayo,4Maqoma of the Rharhabe, Bambatha, Cetywayo of the Zulu, Mampuru of the Pedis, Tshivhase of the Vendas and a host of others, were in the forefront of the wars of resistance and we speak of them with respect and admiration…Even at the height of the severe repression by the apartheid regime there were courageous monarchs like Sabata of the Thembus and Cyprian of the Zulus who refused to betray their people…Many of our traditional leaders are also not aware of the lessons of history. They do not seem to know that there were once absolute monarchs in the world who did not share power with their subjects…It is monarchs…themselves or their predecessors, [who] decided to allow elected representatives of the people to govern, and who became constitutional monarchs who survived, like Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, King Carlos of Spain, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, King Harald of Norway and King Carl XVI Gustaf.

Had these monarchs clung stubbornly to their absolute powers they would long have disappeared from the scene.

But we must never forget that the institution of traditional leaders is sanctified by African law and custom, by our culture and tradition. No attempt must be made to abolish it. We must find an amicable solution based on democratic principles, and which allows traditional leaders to play a meaningful role in levels of government.

…I am not clear to what extent a significant initiative of the apartheid government…was available in other Bantustans. But in the Transkei there was a school for the sons of traditional leaders which gave them basic skills in the administration of areas under their jurisdiction. I would not urge that we should have such schools. But depending on the resources that the government has, it would be advisable to encourage sons of traditional leaders to get the best education. Although my own resources are very limited, I have sent a number of sons and daughters of traditional leaders to universities in South Africa, and to the United Kingdom and the United States of America. A literate corps of educated traditional leaders would in all probability accept the democratic process. The inferiority complex which makes many of them to cling desperately to feudal forms of administration would, in due course, disappear.


Your letter was one of the shortest I ever received, the entire contents consisting only of one compound sentence. Yet it is one of the best letters I had read for a long time. I had thought that our generation of rabble-rousers had vanished with the close of the fifties. I had also believed that with all the experience of almost 50 years behind me, in the course of which I attentively listened to many persuasive speakers, and read first-class biographies of some of the world’s most prominent figures, it would not be easy for me to be carried away by mere beauty of prose or smooth flow of one’s oratory. Yet the few lines that you scrawled carefully across that modest sheet of writing material moved me much more than all the classics I have read. Many of the personalities that featured in your remarkable dream lived, simply and without written records, some 3 centuries ago. Neither you nor I ever saw them plan the operations that were to make them famous in history, nor did we watch as they went into action. For most of them there is not even one authentic photograph which would at least give us a faint idea of their physical features or personality. Yet even a polished urbanite like yourself, who lives in the second half of the 20th century, with all the fantastic progress and achievement that mark it, and who is cut off from the influence of tribal life, cannot wipe away from your thoughts, plans and dreams the rugged and fierce heroes of the Neolithic age. They were unusual men – the exceptions that are found elsewhere in the world; in so far as their economy and implements were concerned they lived in the Stone Age, and yet they founded large and stable kingdoms by means of metal weapons. In the conflicts that were later to rock the country, they gave a good account of themselves, holding at bay for a continuous period of more than [one] hundred years, a community millennia in advance of themselves in economic organisation and technology, and which made full use of the scientific resources at their disposal.

I find the explanation for your dream in the simple fact that you read deeper lessons into our ancestry. You regard their heroic deeds during the deathless century of conflict as a model for the life we should lead today. When their country was threatened they showed the highest standard of patriotism. Just as they refused to use the primitiveness of their economic system and ineffectiveness of their weapons as an excuse for shirking their sacred duty, so the present generation should not allow itself to be intimidated by the disparities current internal alignments seem to entail…But the full story of our past heritage remains incomplete if we forget that line of indigenous heroes who acted as curtain raisers to the major conflicts that subsequently flamed out, and who acquitted themselves just as magnificently. The Khoikhoi,5from whom the bulk of our Coloured folk is descended, were skilfully led by Autshumayo (S.A.’s [South Africa] first black political prisoner to be exiled to Robben Island), Odasoa and Gogosoa. During the Third Liberation War in 1799 Klaas Stuurman took the unprecedented step of joining forces with Cungwa, Chief of [the] Amagqunukhwebe. Many people, including freedom fighters with a long record of struggle and sacrifice, speak contemptuously of [the] Abatwa. Yet several S.A. historians have written objective and warm accounts on their unconquerable spirit and noble qualities. Those who have read reports of the Sneeuberg battles between [the] Abatwa and the Boers, and more especially that between [the] Abatwa, led by their chief, Karel, and a commando of more than 100 Boers around the great cave at Poshuli’s Hoek, will have an idea of the important contribution made to S.A. history by a community that once were the sole occupants of our beautiful country.6In numerous engagements they showed unusual courage and daring and would continue to fight desperately even after the last arrow had been fired. These are the men who strove for a free South Africa long before we reached the field of battle. They blazed the trail and it is their joint efforts that supply the source of the vast stream of S.A. history. We are the heirs to a three-stream heritage; an inheritance that inspires us to fight and die for the loftiest ideals in life. The title ‘African hero’ embraces all these veterans. Years later, more articulate and sophisticated personalities were to follow and, in the process, the tableau of history was enriched a thousand times – the Selope Themas, Jabavus, Dubes, Abdurahmans, Gools, Asvats, Cachalias,7and now you and your generation have joined this legion of honour…

I am very fond of great dreams and I particularly liked yours; it was very close to my heart. Perhaps in your next dream, there will be something that will excite not only the sons [of] Zika Ntu, but the descendants of all the famous heroes of the past. At a time when some people are feverishly encouraging the growth of fractional forces, raising the tribe into the final and highest form of social organisation, setting one national group against the other, cosmopolitan dreams are not only desirable but a bounden duty; dreams that stress the special unity that hold the freedom forces together – [in] a bond that has been forged by common struggles, sacrifices and traditions.


Mandela transcribed portions of George W Stow’s The Native Races of South Africa: A History of the Intrusion of the Hottentots and Bantu into the Hunting Grounds of the Bushmen, the Aborigines of the Country, seenote 6, this chapter.



Text copyright © 2010 by Nelson R. Mandela and The Nelson Mandela Foundation
All rights reserved
First edition, 2010

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