The disgraceful banning of 'Mandela's Last Years'

Jeremy Gordin, who’s read the book, says an egregious act of censorship has occurred in front of our noses

1. Intro

A couple of weeks ago I read in the Saturday Star an excerpt from Vejay Ramlakan’s Mandela’s Last Yearsthe story of Nelson Mandela’s final journeyby the head of his medical team. Having been Surgeon-General of the South African military health service (SAMHS) during the last years of Nelson Mandela’s life, Ramlakan had played a major role in Mandela’s medical care.

I found the excerpt a trifle underwhelming (though if I’d known then that Mike Nicol, one of the finest writers around, was the ghost-writer, I’d have probably been less glib). I thought to myself: “Oh well, another fellow kleibing naches (‘getting proud enjoyment’, as we say in Yiddish) from his connection with the Great Man, why not? Good luck to Mr Ramlakan.” But I also remember thinking I would not contribute any of my hard-earned latkes towards buying the book.

What a mistake. If I’d bought a copy, I could be down at Postnet now, copying it to beat the band and making myself a fortune.

For, as we now know, Graça Machel/Mandela and Mandla Mandela, the chief of the Mvezo Traditional Council, the grandson of the great man, and sometime grave-robber – both of them, aided and abetted a little later by the SANDF, which “distanced” itself from the book as though it contained a fearful contagion, and by the Protector of the Mandela Name (1st class), George Bizos SC – all of them jumped on the book with all their left feet, pronouncing it haram and treyf and wie weet wat ook al.

As a result, the publisher, Penguin Random House South Africa, has withdrawn the book from circulation – you can’t lay your hands on it – something that has not happened locally, if my aging memory serves me well, since Jonathan Ball Publishers had to pull Allan Greenblo’s book about Sol Kerzner off the shelves in 1997, some 20 years ago (see note below). But we’ll get back to Penguin Random House later.

All of which is to say that, if you have the book or the text and can copy it and sell it, you could make a killing. I wonder what the Guptas and their various handlangers are doing today.

So why have Machel et al complained about the book and why has Penguin withdrawn it? We’ll get to these issues in a minute. First, however, let’s consider the text.

2. Text.

In keeping with my devotion to Politicsweb and its esteemed readers, I spent most of yesterday reading the book, which a kind person and acquaintance allowed me to read (not, by the way, a person from Penguin, not Ramlakan, not Machel, not a person from the media – not anyone “relevant” to this fandango).

First, let’s note that Ramlakan, an ANC member who served in Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) and spent four years jailed on Robben Island, was (and doubtless still is) completely devoted to Mandela, almost to the point of hero-worship.

In short, in 188 pages there is not one overt (or covert) malicious word or suggestion about Mandela. Not one. At one point (p 29), according to Ramlakan, Mandela said he was feeling “sad and depressed”. This incident comes soon after Mandela’s 90th birthday when his health is starting to deteriorate seriously and he had become “anxious” about certain issues (according to Ramlakan – and Ramlakan is the doctor).

So: can’t Nelson Mandela, aged 90, feel sad or depressed? Is this contrary to the constitution? 

Second, the preface (p viii) reads:

“In telling this story, there are issues that had to be carefully and responsibly addressed: the issues of agency when a global icon becomes frail [I am not entirely certain what this means – jg]; the requirement of doctor-patient confidentiality; state craft and state secrets; military protocol and the need for secrecy; and ethical norms and legal problems. We navigated these minefields while writing this book, and, fortunately, these restrictions have not substantially affected the account.”

This suggests the following: Ramlakan was alive to issues of doctor-patient confidentiality and ethical norms and legal problems; he wasn’t just barreling ahead thoughtlessly or irresponsibly. (Machel’s complaint inter alia was that Ramlakan had violated his Hippocratic Oath by divulging certain information.) More importantly, his publishers were obviously fully aware of legal issues – it was they who probably told him what needed to be written in the preface – and this book was clearly “lawyered”, as publishers are wont to say: the contents were checked out by a lawyer.

So what then is to be found in the text that might be (or is) questionable?

Well, to cut a long story as short as possible, what is quite evident – you really don’t need a PhD – is that Ramlakan had a nightmare of a job for two very simple reasons.

First, everyone – everyone – especially the ANC and the state (which are pretty much the same thing, as we know), figured they “owned” Mandela, whether he or his family or anyone else liked it or not.

So everyone interfered – doubtless with the best of intentions, but still. For example, the Minister of Defence for most of the period, Lindiwe Sisulu, Ramlakan’s ultimate boss, who does not have to the best of my knowledge a medical degree, got involved.

In one of the more bizarre scenes in the book (p 68 seq.), Sisulu instructs Ramlakan to ensure that Mandela – this is circaJanuary 2011 – is examined by a team of Cuban doctors, who are flown in. Why? I dunno. But presumably because “our” doctors, without any training in Marxist dialectic, might not be smart enough. (Allow me to remind readers that it is common cause that until about 15 years ago or so, Seffrican medical graduates were considered internationally to be among the best in the world.)

As it turned out, the Cuban doctors seemed to think that all that could be done for Mandela was indeed being done by the local yokels – the local “Mandela task team” included some seriously eminent specialists, by the way – and, in any case, the Cubans didn’t seem to have too good a grasp of English (or isiXhosa). The Cuban consultation petered out in an email correspondence, which the Cubans seemed not to have kept up very diligently.

Second, however, Ramlakan soon discovered that there was not one Mandela family. There were (and, it seems, are) three or perhaps even five. There was the Graça Machel family (of which Zelda La Grange can be considered a sub-group, though in terms of interfering she occasionally behaved as a fourth family); then there was the Winnie Mandela family; and, thirdly, there were the children and grandchildren from Mandela’s first marriage to Evelyn Mase, notably the (apparently formidable) daughter, Makaziwe, now 62 or 3, and holder of a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts. Incidentally, be aware that the aforementioned Mandla Mandela is the grandson of Mandela and Evelyn (not of Winnie); Makaziwe is Mandla’s auntie; but there seems to be no love lost between the two; in fact he could be considered the fifth family.

Now, each of these families or clans figured they held the primary voice (never mind an “equal” voice) in the treatment and care of, and access to, Nelson Mandela. Why was this? Well, it is also common cause – and in fact, according to Ramlakan, it was mentioned by Mandela in relation to his “sadness and depression” (see above) – that Mandela felt enormously guilty about the years spent in prison, away from his family/ies. He had no “reasonable” reason to feel guilty, obviously – he never chose to go to jail for close to three decades; but, as we know, rationality does not generally play a role in the operations of guilt feelings, especially as one gets older.

And so, as we know, Mandela, the great reconciler, put an enormous amount of energy into his family/ies – he wanted “one big happy family”, he really did; and this meant that everyone was equally welcome, equally important and had an equal “voice” (including even Winnie). And it seems that Graça either understood this and cooperated; or was told early on by Mandela that this was how it was going to be; or both.

But imagine how this played out for the person responsible for his health and care, Ramlakan. Nelson Mandela might have been – indeed, was – captain of his soul; but when it came to his life, especially when he was frail and unable to call the shots loudly and clearly, there were so many vice-captains running around that there was no way the ball could ever emerge from the scrum.

Ramlakan, as I have mentioned, had a nightmare of a time trying to take care of Mandela – not only because Mandela was old and ill but because Ramlakan had to “handle” as best he could interference from every quarter imaginable, especially from the fractious Mandela family members.

Ramlakan does not – let’s note this carefully please – complain or even make a big thing out of this. He’s way too busy describing his own role – which is fine, it’s his book – and paying homage to Mandela. And he seems not to be a subtle or vindictive person. In short, the “real” story in this book emerges from what my mother would have called its obiter dicta – its incidental remarks, which Ramlakan makes merely by way of telling his story; he had to fill more than 50 pages, bear in mind. He had a publisher behind him saying, “C’mon, c’mon, tell us more – we need more texture, more detail.”

But, as I have said, you don’t need a PhD to figure “the story” out; it begins on p 66, with the en passant mention of “the nature of the large Mandela family”, and it never ends: the human nightmare of family and their competing demands and always knowing better. Ramlakan not only has to deal with the grim reaper – and not even the national democratic revolution can stop him – but also with all the very loud noise coming from the side.

James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus famously said (in Ulysses) that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” To which Saul Bellow’s Charlie Citrine writes (in Humboldt’s Gift) about a character called Von Humboldt Fleisher that: “He said that history was a nightmare during which he was trying to get a good night’s sleep.”

I thought of those sayings while reading this book. You do get the feeling that during his final days Mandela was trying to get a good night’s sleep, despite the cacophony of demands on him, especially from his scrappy family/ies and the ANC.

3. Some of the questions answered (we hope)

So why have Machel et al complained about the book? As I have tried to show, it lifts the lid, albeit very gently in fact, on the Mandela family morass. Probably more important, although she is not at all negatively depicted, Graça Machel is not the centre-piece, and at one point (p 166) Ramlakan suggests (not nastily) that she has “cabin fever” and should take a break from being at Tata’s side all the time (which she does). I don’t think she’d fancy this version of “history” at all. She ever wants to be “the noble lady” ... and, well, the whole business was not lady-like. Death seldom is.

And, in what might be called “a massively career-limiting move”, Ramlakan writes (p 186) of it having been Winnie at Mandela’s side at the final moment: “She nestled her head besides his body” – and Graça comes in a little later. Not a starring role for Graça, alas.

What about Graça Machel’s complaints about Ramlakan having violated his Hippocratic Oath by breaching doctor-client confidentiality?

Trust me (if you will): there’s no confidential medical information offered in this book – unless one considers it confidential that Mandela actually stopped breathing on 8 June 2013 (p 128) – but his body reasserted itself, as it were, and he started breathing again, and then was rushed to hospital. I have always assumed that something deeply critical happened to Mandela on that night, as did others who were “Mandela-watching” at the time (I was then publisher of the Daily Sun, so it was a major part of my job) – which is why Mandela was famously rushed to hospital. I.e., it was no secret.

I promise you that if an alleged breach of patient-client confidentiality, related to this book, were to go before any tribunal of any sort, the matter would be dropped by the court because Graça’s complaint is simply unfounded.

So why then? As suggested, Machel does not like the light in which she is cast – it clearly annoys her – nor does she like “the equal space” that has been given to Winnie – and to Makaziwe for that matter. As for Mandla ... well, I don’t feel I’m sufficiently medically qualified to explain anything Mandla says or does.

What about Ramlakan’s claim that “someone” in the family asked him, or gave him permission, to write the book – a claim denied by Machel, Mandla, and even Winnie (though the reports on Winnie have, as always, been a trifle contradictory)? Obviously I don’t know the answer but it strikes me that Ramlakan’s no fibber and, if you go to yesterday’s Sowetan Live (see here), and read what Makaziwe had to say, we can promptly forget about this particular red herring. I.e., it might well have been her; why not?

What about Penguin? Its “final statement” on the matter is, to be very kind, a trifle sophistical. On the one hand, the statement says the book is being withdrawn “out of respect” for the late Mr Mandela’s family. (Penguin seems not to grasp there is more than one family.) But it then goes on to say that the company “accepted” the book for publication after the author “advised the publisher that he had been requested by Mr Mandela’s family to publish the book”.

Ouch. What this means, if I understand correctly, is that the publisher no longer believes that “Mr Mandela’s family” made that request. Yet, it is clear that Penguin had this manuscript thoroughly lawyered. So what difference does it make anyway whether that request was made or not?

I have an astute friend, a very senior journalist, who is sometimes, notwithstanding his profession, prone to being clear and direct. His comment was: “Ach, when the issue hit the fan, it went straight to Penguin’s head office in London. They took one look at the Bell Pottinger saga – and voided themselves. End of story.”


4. Text (part 2); or the lekker stuff

I am some 2,500 words into this piece – and can feel the editor of Politicsweb preparing to throw a book at me (figuratively, of course). But I feel it’d be a disservice to Polweb readers if I didn’t tell you about the lekker – or rather, in some cases, weird – stuff in this book.

P. 33. Madiba goes off for Christmas to Douw Steyn’s retreat in the Waterberg, to which he has a standing invitation. There’s a bit of a kerfuffle because the lodge isn’t big enough for all the family/ies, and some have to leave on Xmas eve (not Graça). Mandela is very, very upset. Why? We’re not sure. He and Steyn go out on a lake and clearly “have words”. What about precisely? We don’t know. But Mandela demands that he be driven back to Joburg immediately. (Which means Ramlakan has to jump around, which is why he tells the story – because Mandela has to be covered at all times, medically – Mandela can’t go jorling around by car in the Waterberg and on the highways whenever he chooses.) Why’s it weird? Because we never know what the fight was about or why Mandela was so angry. White monopoly capital, I tell you.

P. 86. Following a security sweep, a camera is found hidden in Mandela’s bedroom. Yes, you heard me correctly. Does Ramlakan get excited? Nah. “They” think it’s been put there by one of the police personnel or cleaning staff who want to make lots of latkes by flogging footage to the media. That’s it; end of story. Underwhelming. We hear no more. Couldn’t it have been Steven Spielberg?

P. 128. June 8, 2013: Mandela stops breathing momentarily – and is rushed off to military hospital in Pretoria. But the ambulance breaks down and catches fire on the highway. But this we knew about at the time from journalist Debora Patta, though maybe not about the fire. The mind boggles.

P. 143. The chief of the army General Solly Shoke calls in Ramlakan and threatens him with disciplinary action for “absenteeism”. Ramlakan, the Surgeon General, explains he’s been rather busy ministering to Madiba. Shoke apparently doesn’t give a proverbial tinker’s and later effectively fires him. Why? Was Ramlakan naughty? Was Shoke in the pay of white monopoly capital? What was it all about? We are never told.

5. The End

I think the “disappearance” of this book – which harks back to you-know-when – is a scandal and an embarrassing shame. I note that there hasn’t, as far as I know, been a peep from the FXI (Freedom of Expression Institute) or any of the other luvvies.

Graça Machel’s behaviour – and the behaviour of her acolytes, including Bizos SC – is unacceptable and is the behaviour of bullies; if Ramlakan is a nutter of some sort or unethical or whatever, if there’s something Solly Shoke knew that we don’t, take him to court. Finish en klaar. If the book’s that “bad” (which it’s not, unless I missed something), apply for an urgent interdict. But don’t bully the publisher.

As for Penguin Random House South Africa, its explanation is no explanation at all. It is lily-livered codswallop and attaches shame to one of the world’s greatest (and courageous) publishing houses.

I think Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela must be spinning in his grave.

Postscript (30 July):

Jonathan Ball of Jonathan Ball Publishers (JBP) has pointed out that the case of the withdrawal from retail outlets and the Internet of Allan Greenblo's book on Sol Kerzner by order of the high court in 1997 cannot be compared in any way to Penguin Random House SA's decision to withdraw "Mandela's Last Years" by Vejay Ramlakan. Ball has argued that he fought the withdrawal of the Greenblo book in three separate court processes and at an enormous cost. The book was certainly not withdrawn merely because someone complained about it; the matter was taken to court by Sol Kerzner; and JBP did everything it could to keep it on the shelves. - Jeremy Gordin