The Nelson Mandela Foundation welcomes the decision by Penguin Random House to withdraw the book, Mandela’s Last Years, from trade.
While the Foundation has no authority over those who represent the life and times of Madiba through publications, we welcome new interpretations and fresh stories related to the life and times of Nelson Mandela. Madiba constantly reminded the Foundation that he wanted us to promote spaces for multiple voices.
However, those who choose to do so must respect a medley of legal and ethical requirements. The author of Mandela’s Last Years demonstrably failed in this regard.
Thousands of books, documentaries, feature films, online features, articles and other forms of publication on Madiba are produced by various people. Many of these have used our resources. Madiba mandated us to provide archival and broader memory services without fear or favour. In 2014 we marked the 20th anniversary of the publication of Long Walk to Freedom by publishing online over 50 errors of fact in the book.
Our memory work allows us to assist research projects across a wide spectrum of both voice and perspective. Alf Kumalo used our fact-checking service while preparing his book, 8115: A Prisoner’s Home. So did Anant Singh while working on the movie, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Xolela Mangcu, who is currently working on a new Mandela book, took comment from us on his book concept. All these narrators chose which of our inputs to accept and disregard – a healthy pattern, in our view.
The author of Mandela’s Last Years did not make any contact or seek input from us.
The author assumes the position of the impartial, objective and ethical scientific observer. And yet, detailed analysis of the book reveals the extent to which partiality, ignorance and disregard for confidentiality shape his narrative. Madiba is the main victim. But there are many others, both institutional and individual. As an organisation mandated by Madiba to do memory work rooted in authentic, reliable and comprehensive historical evidence, we have been compelled to document for our archive the book’s inaccuracies, falsehoods and invasions of privacy.
The book’s hallmark, in our view, is a pattern of disclosure that uses the privilege of private space to discredit certain people and promote others.
In relation to the Nelson Mandela Foundation itself, the book demonstrates both ignorance and prejudice. The book shows no understanding of the Foundation’s mandate, role and processes. The author’s account confuses people who worked for the Foundation with people who worked for Madiba. His account also confuses people who worked for the Foundation and people who worked for Mrs Machel. In it, speculation and rumour easily become fact.
Here are a few examples to illustrate this:
- For the author, Mrs Machel was “entrenched in the work of the Nelson Mandela Foundation” (p.166). In fact, she had a personal office at the Foundation but no formal role or responsibility in relation to our work.
- He speaks with great authority on what he calls the Foundation’s “downgrading” of Zelda la Grange in 2012 (pp.92-93). This without seeking a view either from us or from her.
- His assignation of full responsibility to the Foundation for the 2011 “routine tests” media release (a “blunder”, p.65) gives no sense of the complexity everyone around Madiba at the time was negotiating.
- He insinuates that the Foundation supported Madiba’s appearance at the 2010 football World Cup final as “an opportunity for fundraising” (p.37). This is an outrageous notion, not surprisingly unsubstantiated.
It is not an easy thing for us to support the withdrawal of a book. We oppose censorship in principle and work hard at avoiding the role of gatekeeper. Madiba repeatedly communicated to us an imperative not to be tripped up by a desire to protect him. Always, however, there are limits. And Mandela’s Last Years is beyond them.