Nelson Mandela’s Conversations with Himself.

Nelson Mandela's Conversations with Myself provide unprecedented access to the South African leader.

There are few pure heroes in this world, and, in my book, Nelson Mandela comes awfully close.

The lifelong freedom fighter turned 92 in July, one year after his birthday was declared an international event worthy or being noted and barely more than a month after one of his beloved grandchildren was killed.

Madida, as he is known, is seen less and less frequently in public-a fact which made his appearance with wife Graca Machel at the closing ceremonies of the World Cup that much more moving.   One had the sense that this might well be the great man’s last public moment.

Whether that is true or not, we all should be grateful for having had him with us for as long as we have.

I have written before about a number of books about Mandela, including his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.  In that work, it turned out that Mandela’s consummate concern for community extended even to his autobiography, which, it turns out, was largely written by a committee of intimates who wanted to make sure that all who deserved credit for their role in the liberation struggle did indeed receive it.

Mandela has written a children’s book and published a book of watercolors in the years since his autobiography’s publication.  He also has buried one of his sons and spoken publicly about his boy’s having died from AIDS.   This was a typically courageous move by the grieving leader, and one that showed another of his less well known qualities: his capacity to learn and grow through experience and adversity.

He has had plenty of both, and in, Conversations with Myself, Mandela provides a far more intimate look at his letters, his time on Robben Island, his advice to his children, his burgeoning relationship with Machel, and even his diary, than Long Walk to Freedom.

Many thanks to the Clayton family for giving me this highly enjoyable read for my 45th birthday.

As such, the book is a veritable treasure trove for Mandela junkies and those people looking more generally to learn from one of the world’s true elder statesmen.

Many aspects of the book deserve discussion.  Organized under a combination of theme and chronology, the work moves from Mandela’s childhood in Qunu, which was part of the Transkei region, through his time as a lawyer in Johannesburg, settling for the bulk of the book on his 27 years in prison.

His post-release life does not seem to be so much as an afterthought as one marked by intense activity and political engagement-one of the section introduction notes that some of the prisoners even had moments of nostalgia for the quiet and order associated with that period in their lives-and thus he went weeks and even months with making just schematic notes.

Conversations with Myself also contains interview excerpts from many talks he had with Ahmed Kathadra, a longtime comrade, and Richard Stengel.

The dominant impression that emerges from the book is of the man’s unwavering commitment to his people and equally unshakeable willingness to see the humanity in other people like the apartheid leaders, even those who harmed, harassed, tortured and killed the people he represented.

Anchored firmly in African traditions and culture, Mandela also writes movingly about Russian literature and Shakespeare.  He speaks with fondness about some of the guards with whom he developed excellent relationships-in one case during a conversation with Stengel, Mandela talks himself into a reminder to call the guard’s boss-and with aching tenderness toward Winnie, his second wife and arguably the love of his life.

The book has humorous points, too.

One reads in his diary that his tasks for the day include calling Oprah Winfrey and getting new socks.

These details only underscore Mandela’s humanity, and thus the magnitude both of what he has done during his lifetime and how he has conducted himself.

He writes at the very end of Conversations with Myself about how he rejects the idea that he is a saint, even by the definition of a sinner who keeps on trying to improve.

That may well be true, and it is a very rare person who cannot find something to admire and emulate in the Nobel Peace Prize winner.  This book takes us closer to the real Mandela than we have been before.  I hope you consider reading it.

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