- Q&A with archival team
- Q&A with Verne Harris
- Champion Within
Q&A with the archival team
Have you discovered a lot about the fight against apartheid through researching Mandela’s archives that you didn’t already know?
[Tim Couzens, Writer]: The details and trajectory of Mandela’s life are well known (for instance, his shift from traditionalism through Africanism, socialism to pragmatic economics) and have been analysed and reanalysed. Much has been written about him. Conversations with Myself presents his voice largely unmediated, drawing on private diaries, correspondence, notes and conversations. In many ways they confirm prevailing ideas and perceptions, rather than contradict them. But some elements of the material are surprising reminders of what is sometimes forgotten.
For instance, the 1962 diary he kept when he slipped out of the country to make contact with African leaders and acquire military expertise and training is a powerful reminder of Mandela’s belief that violence might in some circumstances be necessary, his revolutionary determination at the time, and his part in the founding of MK. In the benign icon image that is so often nowadays presented it is well to not forget that it was backed by a hard edge.
Have you discovered a lot about Mandela as an activist and as a man through your research?
[Tim Couzens, Writer]: Perhaps one of the keys to his personality is that, as he has often said upfront, he is a man of the countryside with habits instilled in him in his first twenty years of life, an ingrained sense of dignity and decorum.
Throughout the private papers there are glimpses, often amusing, of his meticulousness about punctuality, dress and (sometimes) his handwriting. Extraordinary are the scores of pages in his notebooks which he devoted to take down, in fine detail, what each participant in regular working meetings said – almost as though he was taking minutes!
This meticulousness and respect carried over into his dealings with people, and what he said about them. In background taped reminiscences to Long Walk to Freedom and Anthony Sampson’s authorised biography he was careful to be accurate about reputations and insisted certain things be not put in or specifically taken out if he considered they were hurtful or harmful of reputations.
Has some of the material inspired you?
[Boniswa Nyati, Information and Resource Officer]: Yes, Madiba, despite being in very depressing and difficult situations, it was very important to him to provide assurance to his offspring of how much he appreciated them and their achievements. He connected with them, often congratulating them on their achievements. He congratulated and praised Winnie for her role as a single mother.
This inspired me to recognise how important it is to show a presence in the life of the partner and children regardless of whatever difficulty there may be in the family.
Do you feel a sense of privilege in being able to read first-hand correspondence and papers that are so much a part of South African history?
[Sahm Venter, Senior Researcher]: I feel enormously privileged to have been part of this team and to have been able to read Madiba’s correspondence as well as to listen to more than seventy hours of taped conversations, more than half of which I transcribed. This process, in particular, became almost a sacred practice where I could shut out the world and listen to the tone, timbre and speech patterns and the incredibly simple and wise way in which Madiba communicates – of a man who went through hell and came out the other side with his soul, beliefs and dignity intact because of his love for his people and of a profound belief in equality, democracy and freedom. It is impossible to read his letters and listen to him speak without being deeply moved.
What has been for you the most interesting or the most revealing discovery among the papers?
[Boniswa Nyati, Information and Research Officer]: The most revealing part was the interest Madiba showed in his children and even getting to know how they did at school and the contact he tried to keep up with the outside world. One would have imagined that somebody who was incarcerated under such difficult conditions would not be aware of events outside due to the tight security and conditions under which he was kept.
[Zanele Riba, Archivist]: The most interesting discovery is the meticulous and thorough way that Madiba would engage on issues. During meetings, he captures what each speaker says, and then after the meeting, he conducts an in-depth analytical recollection of all inputs including his own, and jots down the position he arrives at.
[Razia Saleh, Senior Archivist]: I had the privilege of going through Madiba’s prison files, and I was amazed at the amount of correspondence there was with the prison authorities and various apartheid government structures. Madiba challenged every infraction on his rights and his fellow prisoners’ rights, and of prisoners, and the harsh treatment meted out to Winnie.
Another revealing thing was that even though he was in prison, he was not isolated from his family, and his extended family in the Transkei. There is correspondence and consultation to and fro, once he was allowed to send and receive more letters by the prison authorities.
[Sahm Venter, Senior Researcher]: One of the most startling pieces of material I came across was tucked away in one of Madiba’s prison files at the National Archives in Pretoria. It was a letter to his youngest daughter, Zindzi, written just over thirty years before. It was neatly folded and never sent to her. Although many prisoners, including Madiba, had correspondence held back by censors for various vindictive and arbitrary reasons, this was startling in that it was totally benign, it contained nothing that could have been construed as dangerous. It was a beautifully written letter from a father to a teenage daughter, just trying as best as he could as an absent father to tell her about his life before he went to jail. It was kept back only because he “did not have permission” to include it with a Christmas card to her.
What was the most exciting discovery for you?
[Tim Couzens, Writer]: Any researcher in primary source material will have small discoveries like mini epiphanies, to keep them going. There are plenty of these in the Mandela private archive and some of these one-off items are scattered through the book. There are also several hugely important ones, too. One is the collection of desk calendars which he kept between 1976 and 1990. Other than his prison correspondence, they are the most important immediate record of his life in prison and are at times achingly personal. Then there is the unfinished version of a sequel to Long Walk to Freedom. It was not exactly lost in the archive but was not exactly found either. When a fragment of it was stumbled across and the mini hunt for the rest of it ensued, the researcher’s adrenalin was up and has, months afterwards, not entirely waned.
[Lucia Raadschelders, Archivist]: This is a difficult question to answer. There is not ‘one’ exciting discovery for me. It’s the whole ‘discovery’ of the person Nelson Mandela – his dreams, his meticulous record keeping, his opinions, his beautiful way with words, his sensitivity, etcetera.
[Sahm Venter, Senior Researcher]: What I constantly marvelled at was Madiba’s wonderful sense of humour. This obviously comes through more strongly in his spoken voice but it is astonishing that he could find humour in the most harrowing experiences. He would constantly chuckle and laugh at things from which many people would probably not easily recover and he would often laugh at himself. I was also excited to discover what a good writer he is. Some of his letters are so beautifully written that they literally move one to tears. I think this is another mark of the kind of person he is but I found that, while I always thought that the prison authorities refused him permission to attend the funeral in 1968 of his mother and in 1969 of his son when, in fact, his letter to attend the funeral of his first born, Thembi, who died in a car accident on 13 July 1969, at the age of 24, was actually ignored, not officially rejected, but just not answered.
Was it difficult to categorise and organise the material?
[Zanele Riba, Archivist]: I am processing Madiba’s notebooks from 1990 until 2001. It is both interesting and challenging, in that one expects that in a personal notebook one writes down something as and when it happens. This applies very little to Madiba, as most of the time he writes well-thought and meaningful notes in an organised way. It is only on rare occasions when one finds that in a particular section Madiba would be dealing with one thing, and then immediately thereafter a totally unrelated matter would appear. When this happens, it is usually with stuff that is more personal.
Did you come across material where the provenance and date were difficult to determine?
[Zanele Riba, Archivist]: The unique handwriting has made it easy to determine the provenance of the records, except in just two notebooks, where there was very different handwritings. In one, there was someone else’s handwriting, but there was also Madiba’s handwriting somewhere in the middle of the notebook. In the other notebook, the handwriting is very different, and no one can as yet tell the origin of the notebook.
Did you have any trouble with Mandela’s handwriting?
[Boniswa Nyati, Information and Resource Officer]: To the contrary, I found his writing to be symptomatic of the elders in our homes who were known as royal readers in the community. The teachers at that time made an effort to specifically teach handwriting and it was a compulsory subject and hence the writing was very clear and very legible. One could see at times that he was writing under tremendous strain, this from the stroke of the pen indicating that he was frustrated either by his environment or the thought of not being able to communicate directly with his family.
[Lucia Raadschelders, Archivist]: Oh yes, his handwriting reminds me of my mother’s – she would have been a little bit older than Mandela but from the same ‘school’ of writing, although in a completely different part of the world.
But one does get used to his handwriting and it also depends on how and when, he was writing: in a hurry, on a table, on his knees – at least – I sometimes imagine him writing on his knees – it looks like that!
Is there something particular about the way Mandela writes and corresponds that demonstrates his qualities as an exceptional leader and man?
[Tim Couzens, Writer]: Reading the transcripts of taped conversations with Richard Stengel and Ahmed Kathrada is an extraordinary experience. You can almost hear the individual voice with all its mannerisms, idiosyncrasies, quirks. Amusing are the antiquated phrases. Uplifting are the chuckles and the laughs. What is remarkable is not only what he says but also how he says it. What you actually learn, an unsurprising surprise, is that the private man is not all that different from the public person.
What are some of the more obscure or interesting sources or places you have discovered Mandela’s writings?
[Razia Saleh, Senior Archivist]: We have been pleasantly suprised to find the Mandela archives in all sorts of places in South Africa, and the world over. And I think that there is still more to be found. Towards the end of last year for example, Judge Thumba Pillay from Durban visited us, and gave us Madiba’s minute handwritten letters addressed to his law firm detailing prison conditions. Judge Pillay explained that these letters were given to him by Mac Maharaj, who had smuggled them out when he was released from Robben Island. They were probably smuggled out with the original manuscript of Long Walk to Freedom!
[Sahm Venter, Senior Researcher]: Like anybody else’s, Madiba’s character is multi-faceted so I don’t think there is any one particular piece of writing that is ‘most revealing’ of his character. I found, however, that all the way through in his writing he constantly indicates not only his humanity, but his humanness. No matter how much he is seen as an icon, a teddy bear, a grandfather of the world, he himself has always been at pains to say that he is just a human being. One of the greatest gifts he has to give us has come through very clearly in this book, and that is that we don’t need to hold him on a pedestal and look at and admire him, we can learn from him. If he could have approached his life and its many trials in the way that he has, we can too. It is him speaking to us through his own thoughts and demonstrating just how simple it can be if you really want to try.