Q&A with Verne Harris

What do you see as the chief objective of the Centre of Memory and Dialogue?

The chief objective of the Centre is to contribute to building a just society. Long Walk to Freedom, Anthony Sampson’s Mandela: The Authorised Biography, and Mandela – The Authorised Portrait are among the major works published on Nelson Mandela to date.

What further insights into the man does this book reveal that previous books haven’t?

This is the first Mandela book to open a significant window into his private spaces. It provides a view of the man addressing himself rather than an audience.

How difficult is it to examine the thoughts and private musings of such a revered figure? How do you put aside preconceptions and focus on the truth as it is revealed in his papers and writings?

Well, in large measure, the truth in these writings speaks for itself and demands attention beyond any examination or other form of mediation by us. The difficulty lies primarily in the
intensity of emotion evoked by his private papers.

How do you treat a piece of Mandela’s writing that is potentially uncomfortable and perhaps detrimental to the image we have of him?

As we do any other piece of his writing. This is not an exercise in hagiography. Only reasonable and legitimate privacy concerns, especially of third parties, have excluded material from
consideration.

How do you think Mandela reconciled the very difficult tug between his political life and that of his family? Did he in fact manage to reconcile the two?

He has himself acknowledged that he was unable to effect this reconciliation. His life was sacrificed to struggle and public service.

How important is Mandela’s legacy for South Africa and South Africans today? How can his principles and philosophy still have a positive impact on his own country and the world?

Nelson Mandela’s legacy is at the heart of the democracy South Africa is striving to build. This legacy is, in a profound sense, our future.

Is there another leader in the world who possesses the ability to unite as Mandela can? How do we produce such leaders?

He emerged from a movement shaped by generations of struggle for justice. I believe that this calibre of leadership is produced by such struggle.

How vital were the roles of Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada as Mandela’s counsellors, advisers and friends in forming his mindset in prison and his subsequent style of leadership?

He has himself acknowledged his indebtedness to mentors and to the broader mentoring of organisation.

Do any of Mandela’s personal musings reveal how or what made him able to rise above his persecution to a point where he could forgive, embrace and even respect his persecutors?

What runs right through his private papers is a capacity to befriend multiple selves, to acknowledge the ‘stranger within’. This, for me, is fundamental to understanding his ability to forgive.

What is it that sets Mandela apart, that makes him such an icon and an inspiration?

I would say two things: the degree to which he has represented, in his person, the epic journey of a nation; and his capacity at one and the same time to inspire respect and affection.

How did you select from the vast number of pieces available as to what should go in this book?

Selection, of course, was not easy. As a team, we looked for the pieces providing the richest and freshest views of the person behind the public figure.

Is there any piece of writing of Mandela’s that speaks to you as the most revealing of his character?

The opening pages of what he intended to be a sequel to Long Walk to Freedom. His discomfort with the status of icon/saint is palpable.