The meaning of Mandela's prison manuscript

James Myburgh says 1975 autobiography appears to have been extensively "scrubbed" in final published version

Earlier this week Politicsweb published an article by Professor Stephen Ellis on what appeared to be the recent release by the Nelson Mandela Foundation Centre of Memory of Nelson Mandela's 1975 prison memoir. He questioned why the Centre had not launched the document with more fanfare, before going on to discuss its significance. Yet, as the Foundation pointed out in its response it had actually first posted the document in November 2011 and then again in March 2012.

Ellis' misconception in this regard is however understandable, given the historical significance of this manuscript. To come across it online in this way is a bit like stumbling across the Holy Grail in a dusty box-on-a-shelf in the British Museum's storerooms with the label "Cup used by Jesus at Last Supper, circa 33 AD" pasted onto it.

To understand the almost legendary status of this document, and its significance, it is necessary to go back a bit in time. The very existence of the manuscript only became public knowledge in late 1989, shortly before Nelson Mandela's release from prison. In a report dated October 29 1989 the Sunday Times stated that "an international scramble has started for rights [to Mandela's secret autobiography], described as the hottest property in publishing. The mystery Mandela manuscript - for which agents are reported to be demanding $1-million in advance royalties - was the talk of the Frankfurt Book Fair this month."

Ahmed Kathrada, who had recently been released from prison, confirmed the existence of the manuscript to the newspaper. He said it had been written clandestinely on Robben Island. "The original was buried in little containers in the prison garden. It was all done secretly. It was later discovered by prison officials - but by that time we had managed to get the manuscript off the island in circumstances I would rather not divulge at this stage." Kathrada added that he did not know where the manuscript was. Fatima Meer, Mandela's friend and biographer, said a copy had found its way to Lusaka.

The mystery deepened over the whereabouts of the manuscript after Meer released a letter from Mandela, dated November 6 1989, where he confirmed that he had written an autobiography in the 70s but added, "I do not know the whereabouts of the manuscript." In mid-November 1989 an ANC spokesman in Lusaka was quoted, in a news agency report, as saying that the manuscript "was locked in a safe in Lusaka and would remain there." This was promptly denied by another higher-ranking ANC spokesman in Lusaka who denied its very existence warning: "Those making the offers are bidding for something that does not exist."

It turned out that the document did, in fact, exist and New York publishers Little Brown secured the rights to the Mandela autobiography in May 1990 for an estimated $3m. The publication date was meant to be in 1992. However, in November of that year the Weekly Mail reported that Little Brown "is having major problems" in getting the book to print. "After paying a huge sum to Mandela for the rights to his story, the publishers have had difficulties getting him - or someone - to sit down and write it." That year however the American journalist Richard Stengel was contracted - after being vetted by the ANC - to complete the book and it was duly published in South Africa in December 1994 as a Long Walk to Freedom. The final published version being based on the prison manuscript and a number of interviews by Stengel of Mandela. It emerged on publication that the manuscript had been transcribed into miniature text by Mac Maharaj and spirited out of Robben Island by him on his release from prison in 1976.

Verne Harris, Director: Research and Archive at the Nelson Mandela Foundation confirmed to Politicsweb that the document the Foundation had posted online "is the transcript (computer-generated) of the transcript (typed) of the transcript (in miniature handwriting) smuggled off Robben Island by Mac Maharaj. To our knowledge there are only a few extant fragments of the original manuscript in Madiba's handwriting (at the National Archives), and a few extant pages of the version smuggled off the Island (with Maharaj)." He added that to the best of the Foundations knowledge both Stengel and Anthony Sampson, author of Mandela: The Authorised Biography (1999), "worked off the computer-generated transcript."

The historical significance of the prison manuscript lies not in what made its way into both the autobiography and the Authorised Biography - both made heavy use of of it  - but rather what was left out.

It has recently been established by Stephen Ellis that contrary to earlier denials Nelson Mandela had been a member of the South African Communist Party at the time the decision to launch the armed struggle was taken. This was confirmed on Mandela's death by the SACP which stated that he had been a member of the Party and its Central Committee on his arrest in 1962.

The prison manuscript was written in the mid-1970s at a time when Soviet-backed National Liberation Movements were on a triumphal march across Asia and Africa. Frelimo had ascended to power in Mozambique, and the MPLA was in the process of doing the same in Angola. Western power meanwhile appeared very much on the wane, following America's defeat in Vietnam. That was the milieu then in which the prison manuscript was written. The final autobiography was commissioned and completed, however, following the collapse of Communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Revelations of Mandela's past sympathies had the potential to cause acute embarrassment, as well damage the myth built up around him by the ANC's Western supporters.

In both Long Walk to Freedom and the Authorised Biography there appears to have been extensive "scrubbing" from the original manuscript of passages pointing to Mandela's support for the Soviet Union and his fervently expressed belief in Marxist-Leninist ideology. This is important as these two books were foundational in cementing the West's understanding of Mandela and the ANC.

The following are some examples derived from a quick read of the prison manuscript:

On page 6 of the prison manuscript Mandela described the Bolshevik revolution as "an immortal achievement which opened up vast possibilities for man's forward movement." This striking quote is not to be found in either Long Walk to Freedom or the Authorised Biography.

On page 509 Mandela wrote of his sentencing to 5 years imprisonment on November 7 1962 - for leaving the country without a passport and for inciting people to strike - that " it was a source of consolation to me that I had been sentenced on the 7th November, the anniversary of the day that had witnessed the birth of the first Socialist State in the world, and which not only obliterated oppression in the Soviet Union but which used its vast resources to aid the oppressed peoples throughout the world in their struggle for national liberation." This passage cannot be found in Long Walk to Freedom. Anthony Sampson reports it as follows: "Mandela took some consolation from noting that he was sentenced on the anniversary of the birth of the first socialist state in Russia, which had supported liberation movements across the world." 176

On the Cuban missile crisis (page 510) Mandela wrote: "Unquestionably my sympathies lay with Cuba. The rise of the first Socialist State in the western hemisphere, the revolutionary means whereby Fidel Castro had seized power, the rapid improvement in the living standards and conditions of the people within the first few years of a socialist society, Castro and his people's unequivocal opposition to colonialism and their full support for the liberation movements, had made a favourable and lasting impact throughout the world. The ability of a new and small state to defend its interests and its independence, to repulse repeated attempts by the mighty USA to destroy it, no only shows the popularity of Fidel Castro and his government, but demonstrates in no uncertain terms the superiority of socialism over capitalism." This passage is not used in Long Walk to Freedom or the Authorised Biography, though the latter does refer to it briefly and elliptically.

Mandela went on to write that "The people of the USA have an inspiring and proud history and have made valuable contributions in many fields... But I hate all forms of imperialism and I consider the US brand, which attempts to subjugate independent countries when European imperialism is on its last legs, the most loathsome and contemptible." Needless to say this passage is not used in Long Walk to Freedom. It would have been somewhat awkward to have done so given that then United States President Bill Clinton wrote the Preface. It is not quoted in the Authorised Biography either, though Sampson does quote the subsequent paragraph (on the CIA).  

On page 362 Mandela wrote: "To reject the co-operation of a party [the SACP] with such a good record can only be due to the influence of our own background and of missionary education, to many years of anti-communist indoctrination by the propaganda agencies of the enemy and to inability to think for ourselves in this regard. Anti-communism is a social disease most people educated in Western schools have inherited and as long as community leaders are trained only in such schools the ridiculous spectacle of freedom fighters who are chained to the patterns of thought current in the enemy camp will continue to play havoc with our own minds." This passage does not seem to appear in Long Walk to Freedom, and is not quoted in the Authorised Biography.

Between pages 100 and 103 Mandela wrote of how he came to fervently "embrace dialectical and historical materialism as my philosophy." Extracts from this section are used in Long Walk to Freedom but they are subtly recast and rephrased to "maintain" Mandela's distance from Communist ideology. At the end of the discussion the following passage (which did not appear in the prison manuscript) is added, presumably to dispel any suspicions that may have been aroused: "I did not need to become a Communist in order to work with them. I found that African nationalists and African communists generally had far more to unite them than to divide them. The cynical have always suggested that the Communists were using us. But who is to say that we were not using them."

Among the passages from this section not to be found in Long Walk to Freedom are the following: "By studying the history of the entire human race we can anticipate the course of the future development of our people and help to speed up the process by concentrating our resources on the achievement of what human history demonstrates as inevitable." And: "It rejects anything beyond the realm of experience and in particular the existence of a supreme being directing the course of human affairs." This section is touched upon but not extensively quoted in the Authorised Biography. Sampson comments only that dialectical materialism had led Mandela to abandon his Christian beliefs. (65).

In a discussion of an unsuccessful 1958 strike Mandela wrote (page 328):

"We have often discussed the question to what extend we should rely on coercive measures in organising political demonstrations and we have had to choose between two alternative courses. We could rely purely on the support the people have freely given because they fully realise that successful demonstrations would be in their best interest and that any action on their part that directly or indirectly assists the enemy should be avoided, that once the majority supports a demonstration freely, coercion should be used against the dissident minority. The other alternative is to rely from the beginning to end on coercion and to use it even if on a specific issue the majority of the people are against us. The ANC policy has been clear and unequivocal. The organisation declared itself against the use of coercive measures as a means of mobilising the support of the people. It is definitely undesirable and even dangerous to mobilise mass support by means of force alone and wherever possible a political organisation should try to avoid such extreme measures. It is far better that the masses should themselves regard the organisation as their principal fortress and should see a particular campaign as a means of solving their immediate or long term problems. But this is neither a question of principle nor wishful thinking but of necessity and should be governed strictly by actual conditions. The real issue is whether the use of force will advance or retard the struggle. If the use of force on a given occasion will harm the cause then we must avoid it by all means. But if it will advance it then it must be used whether or not the majority agrees with us. In our case we have to contend with a brutal regime which invariably uses force to break our strikes and to drive the people from their homes to work and to allow ourselves to be crippled by lofty principles unrelated to the circumstances would be fatal." (My emphasis).

As Ellis notes this statement (in bold) is "tantamount to a ringing endorsement of one of the most outstanding features of Marxism-Leninism-that it is morally permissible to use violence provided only that it will help ‘the struggle'". However, in Long Walk to Freedom, which draws extensively from this section, this passage is subtly rewritten to completely invert Mandela's original position. In this version Mandela/Stengel write:

"We had heated discussions about whether we ought to have relied on coercive measures. Should we have used pickets, which generally prevent people from entering their place of work? The hard-liners suggested that if we had deployed pickets, the strike would have been a success. But I have always resisted such methods. It is best to rely on the freely given support of the people, otherwise that support is weak and fleeting. The organization should be a haven, not a prison. However, if the majority of an organization or the people support a decision, coercion can be used in certain circumstances against the dissident minority in the interests of the majority. A minority, however vocal it may be, should not be able to frustrate the will of the majority."

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