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Conversations With Myself

by Nelson Mandela

Paperback, 454 pages, St Martins Press, List Price: $18 |


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Nelson Mandela

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Conversations With Myself
Nelson Mandela

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Book Summary

Draws on the author's personal archive of never-before-seen papers to offer unique access to the private life of the incomparable world leader, who worked from prison to end apartheid in South Africa. By the author of Long Walk to Freedom.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Conversations With Myself

Conversations with Myself

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC

Copyright © 2011 Nelson R. Mandela
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-374-12895-1

Chapter One

We had been corresponding regularly ever since he went to school at Matatiele and when he later changed to Wodehouse.

In December 1960 I travelled some distance by car to meet him. Throughout this period I regarded him as a child and I approached him mainly from this angle. But our conversation in July 1962 reminded me I was no longer speaking to a child but to one who was beginning to have a settled attitude in life. He had suddenly raised himself from a son to [a] friend. I was indeed a bit sad when we ultimately parted. I could neither accompany him to a bus stop nor see him off at the station, for an outlaw, such as I was at the time, must be ready to give up even important parental duties. So it was that my son, no! my friend, stepped out alone to fend for himself in a world where I could only meet him secretly and once in a while. I knew you had bought him clothing and given him some cash, but nevertheless I emptied my pockets and transferred to him all the copper and silver that a wretched fugitive could afford.

During the Rivonia Case he sat behind me one day. I kept looking back, nodding to him and giving him a broad smile. At the time it was generally believed that we would certainly be given the extreme penalty and this was clearly written across his face. Though he nodded back as many times as I did to him, not once did he return the smile. I never dreamt that I would never see him again. That was 5 years ago ... Never before have I longed for you than at the present moment. It is good to remember this in this day of bitter misfortune and reverses. The writer, P J Schoeman, tells the story of an African Commander-in-Chief who took his army of magnificent black warriors for a hunt. During the chase the son of the Commander was killed by a lioness and the Commander himself was badly mauled by the beast. The wound was then sterilised with a red-hot spear and the wounded dignitary wreathed [sic] with pain as the wound was being treated. Later Schoeman asked how he felt and he replied that the invisible wound was more painful than the visible one. I now know what the Commander meant.


This afternoon the Commanding Officer informed me of a telegram received from attorney Mendel Levin of Johannesburg in which he reported the death of Thembi in a motor accident in Cape Town on July 13.

I write to give you, Kgatho and Makk' my deepest sympathy. I know more than anybody else living today just how devastating this cruel blow must have been to you, for Thembi was your first born and the second child that you have lost. I am also fully conscious of the passionate love that you had for him and the efforts you made to train and prepare him to play his part in a complex modern industrial society. I am also aware of how Kgatho and Maki adored and respected him, the holidays and [the] good time they spent with him in Cape Town.

In her letter written in October 1967 Maki told me that Thembi helped you in buying them all they needed. My late Ma gave me details of the warm hospitality she received from him when she visited me on the Island. Throughout the last five years up to March this year, Nobandla gave me interesting accounts of his attachment and devotion to the family and the personal interest he took in all his relatives. I last saw him five years ago during the Rivonia Trial and I always looked forward to these accounts for they were the main channel through which I was able to hear something of him.

The blow has been equally grievous to me. In addition to the fact that I had not seen him for at least sixty months, I was neither privileged to give him a wedding ceremony nor to lay him to rest when the fatal hour had struck. In 1967 I wrote him a long letter drawing his attention to some matters which I thought were in his interest to attend to without delay. I looked forward to further correspondence and to meeting him and his family when I returned. All these expectations have now been completely shattered for he has been taken away at the early age of 24 and we will never again see him. We should all be consoled and comforted by the fact that he had many good friends who join with us in mourning his passing away. He fulfilled all his duties to us as parents and has left us with an inheritance for which every parent is proud – a charming Molokazana and two lovely babies.

Once more I extend to you, Kgatho and Maki my sincere condolences and trust that you will muster enough strength and courage to survive this painful tragedy.


My eldest son, Madiba Thembekile, aged twenty-four, passed away in Cape Town on July 13, 1969, as a result of injuries he sustained in a motor-car accident.

I wish to attend, at my own cost, the funeral proceedings and to pay my last respects to his memory. I have no information as to where he will be buried, but I assume that this will take place either in Cape Town, Johannesburg or Umtata. In this connection I should be pleased if you would give me permission to proceed immediately, with or without escort, to the place where he will be laid to rest. If he will already have been buried by the time you receive this application, then I would ask that I be allowed to visit his grave for the purpose of `laying the stone', the traditional ceremony reserved for those persons who miss the actual burial.

It is my earnest hope that you will on this occasion find it possible to approach this request more humanely than you treated a similar application I made barely ten months ago, in September 1968, for leave to attend my mother's funeral. Approval of that application would have been a generous act on your part, and one which would have made a deep impression on me. Such a humanitarian gesture would have gone a long way in softening the hard blow and painful misfortune of an imprisoned man losing a mother, and would have afforded me the opportunity to be present at the graveside. I might add that I saw my late son a little more than five years ago and you will readily appreciate just how anxious I am to attend the funeral.

Finally, I should like to point out that precedents exist when Governments have favourably considered applications of this nature.


Ten months before this I had made a similar application when my mother passed away, although the authorities had then adopted a hard line in refusing what I considered in all the circumstances to be a reasonable request, I nonetheless vaguely hoped that this time the death of two members of the family occurring so soon after the other would probabl[y] induce the authorities to give me the one opportunity I had in life of paying my last respects to Thembi ... my application was simply ignored and I was not even favoured with the courtesy of an acknowledgement. A further request for permission to obtain copies of press reports on the fatal accident were turned down, and up to now I have no authentic information whatsoever as to how Thembi died ... Not only was I deprived of the opportunity of seeing for the last time my eldest son and friend, and the pride of my heart; I am kept in the dark on everything relating to him and his affairs.


I was moved by the message of condolence contained in the telegram sent by my chief, Mangosuthu [Buthelezi], on behalf of the family and which I received on July 18 (my birthday), and I should like him to know that I deeply appreciate it. 1968 and 1969 have been difficult and trying years for me. I lost my mother only 10 months ago. On May 12 my wife was detained indefinitely under the Terrorist Act [sic], leaving behind small chdn [children] as virtual orphans, and now my eldest son is gone never to return. Death is a frightful disaster no matter what the cause and the age of the person affected. Where it approaches gradually as in the case of normal illness, the next-of-kin are at least forewarned and the blow may not be so shattering when it ultimately lands. But when you learn that death had claimed a strapping and healthy person in the prime of his life, then one must actually live through the experience to realise how completely paralysing it can be. This was my experience on July 16 when I was first advised of my son's death I was shaken from top to bottom and for some seconds I did not know exactly how to react. I ought to have been better prepared for Thembi was not the first child I lost. Way back in the Forties I lost a 9 months baby girl. She had been hospitalised and had been making good progress when suddenly her condition took a grave turn and she died the same night. I managed to see her during the critical moments when she was struggling desperately to hold within her tender body the last sparks of life which were flickering away. I have never known whether or not I was fortunate to witness that grievous scene. It haunted me for many days thereafter and still provokes painful memories right up to the present day; but it should have hardened me for similar catastrophes. Then came Sept[ember] 26 (my wife's birthday) when I was advised of my mother's death. I had last seen her the previous Sept when she visited me on the Island at the ripe age of 76 having travelled alone from Umtata. Her appearance had much distressed me. She had lost weight and although cheerful and charming, she looked ill and tired. At the end of the visit I was able to watch her as she walked slowly towards the boat which would take her back to the mainland, and somehow the thought flashed across my mind that I had seen her for the last time. But as the months rolled by the picture I had formed of her last visit began to fade away and was altogether dispelled by the exciting letter she wrote thereafter testifying to her good health. The result was that when the fatal hour struck on Sept[ember] 26 I was again quite unprepared and for a few days I spent moments in my cell which I never want to remember. But nothing I experienced in the late Forties and in Sept[ember] last year can be likened to what I went through on July 16. The news was broken to me about 2.30 pm. Suddenly my heart seemed to have stopped beating and the warm blood that had freely flown in my veins for the last 51 years froze into ice. For sometime I could neither think nor talk and my strength appeared to be draining out. Eventually, I found my way back to my cell with a heavy load on my shoulders and the last place where a man striken with sorrow should be. As usual my friends here were kind and helpful and they did what they could to keep me in good spirits.


I had also been anxious to attend the funeral and to pay my last respects to Thembi just as I has been keen to do so in the case of the death of ma. Though I had never hoped to succeed, my heart bled when I finally realised that I could not be present at the graveside — the one moment in life a parent would never like to miss. Many people who ponder on the problems of the average prisoner tend to concentrate more on the lengthy sentences still to be served, the hard labour to which we are condemned, the coarse and tasteless menus, the grim and tedious boredom that stalks every prisoner and the frightful frustrations of a life in which human beings move in complete circles, landing today exactly at the point where you started the day before. But some of us have had experiences much more painful than these, because these experiences eat too deeply into one's being, into one's soul.


I hate giving lectures, Kgatho, even to my own children and I prefer discussing matters with everyone on a basis of perfect equality, where my views are offered as advice which the person affected is free to accept or reject as it pleases him. But I will be failing in my duty if I did not point out that the death of Thembi brings a heavy responsibility on your shoulders. Now you are the eldest child, and it will be your duty to keep the family together and to set a good example for your sisters, to be a pride to your parents and to all your relatives. This means that you will have to work harder on your studies, never allow yourself to be discouraged by difficulties or setbacks, and never give up the battle even in the darkest hour. Remember that we live in a new age of scientific achievement, the most staggering of which is the recent landing of man on the moon. That is a sensational event that will enrich man's knowledge of the universe and that may even result in a change or modification of many fundamental assumptions in many fields of knowledge. The younger generation must train and prepare themselves so that they can easily grasp the far-reaching repercussions of developments in the realm of space. This is an era of intense and vicious competition in which the richest rewards are reserved for those who have undergone the most thorough training and who have attained the highest academic qualifications in their respective fields. The issues that agitate humanity today call for trained minds and the man who is deficient in this respect is crippled because he is not in possession of the tools and equipment necessary to ensure success and victory in the service of country and people. To lead an orderly and disciplined life, and to give up the glittering pleasures that attract the average boy, to work hard and systematically in your studies throughout the year, will in the end bring you coveted prizes and much personal happiness. It will inspire your sisters to follow the example of their beloved brother, and they will benefit greatly through your scientific knowledge, vast experience, diligence and achievements. Besides, human beings like to be associated with a hardworking, disciplined and successful person and by carefully cultivating these qualities you will win yourself many friends.


STENGEL: The letters to your wife that I have read ... they are very, very passionate, and it is an unusual combination, because the letters were very passionate and yet you were very much in control of yourself at all times. How do you explain that?

MANDELA: Well it was, it is [a] difficult thing to explain, but here I was with a woman with whom I have [been] married ... for four years when I was sent to jail, and she was a very young person, inexperienced; she had two children and she couldn't bring them up properly because of the harassment, and persecution by the police.

STENGEL: And so how does that explain the passion in your letters?

MANDELA: Well, you know, I was thinking of her, of course, every day and also I wanted to give her encouragement, to know that there is somebody somewhere who cares for her.

STENGEL: Yes. Well that's obvious from the letters. How do you yourself deal with the idea that your wife ... that you were sentenced to life in prison, you were gone for many, many years. She has a life outside, she meets other men ... it must be very difficult to think about that; that perhaps she, you know, meets other men that she might like or might take your place temporarily. How did you deal with that?

MANDELA: Well that was a question, you know, which one had to wipe out of his mind. You must remember that I was underground for almost two years before I went to jail. I took a deliberate decision to go underground ... In other words ... those issues were not material issues to me, and then one had to accept the human issue, the human fact, the reality that a person will have times when he wants to relax and one must not be inquisitive. It is sufficient that this is a woman who is loyal to me, who supports me and who comes to visit me, who writes to me. That's sufficient.

STENGEL: And then everything else you ... that's sufficient and you put the other things out of your mind?

MANDELA: Oh, yes.

STENGEL: Because they are not important.


STENGEL: And it doesn't alter her relationship to you, and your relationship to her.


"Excerpted from CONVERSATIONS WITH MYSELF by Nelson Mandela, published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © Nelson R. Mandela and The Nelson Mandela Foundation. All rights reserved."