Mandela's Memoirs

Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Richard Dowden


Maybe we should all go and live on Robben Island for 15 years. The experience produces remarkable human beings. Ahmed “Kathy” Kathrada, the man who shared a cell with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, came to the South Africa High Commission in London last week for the launch of Conversations with Myself, the new collection of Mandela’s writings.

Some of the funniest parts of the book are the recorded recollections of Kathrada, now 81, and Mandela in conversation. On Thursday night he spoke carefully, softly, savouring the ironies as he built his stories of defiance and hope. Then he signed copies of the book in a remarkably steady hand.

As he talked I felt the gentleness and compassion of Kathrada as well as the immense strength of his commitment. Three stories struck me. Firstly the time when all the top category prisoners went down with flu except Mandela and another prisoner. For a few days, the two of them collected, disposed of, then washed out and dried all their toilet buckets.

Secondly Mandela’s decision to open secret talks with the government while still a prisoner. The talks that led to the end of Apartheid were initiated by Mandela alone without even consulting his fellow prisoners. Thirdly his deep reluctance to become the ANC’s presidential candidate in 1994. Only when the ANC’s Central Committee unanimously insisted did he accept but let it be known that he would only serve one term.         

Sweden dreams of Afrika

Why do Swedes read, or at least buy, so many books? It can’t be because Swedish TV is boring – just watch Wallander. They also seem more interested in Africa than the British or the Americans. They have no colonial connections though there are strong missionary links to countries like Namibia. But I’ve never had a bigger audience than I did at the recent Goteborg Book Fair. Several hundred people turned up on the first day even though I speak not a word of Swedish. The bold title the Swedish publisher, Leopard, has given my book is Afrika Framtidens Kontinent – the Continent of the Future. I gulped when I saw it but actually I think it is right. Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles doesn’t work in Swedish apparently.

On the second day however my bubble of vanity was burst. People crowded into a rather small space where I had to give a quick 15 minute presentation. More and more kept coming as I was speaking until there were more people standing than sitting. By the time I stepped down off the platform I felt like a rock star. But then I noticed that no one moved and more people were coming in. And as I walked away, I saw Nadine Gordimer being helped onto the podium I had just vacated.