JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — An irritable man who got cross when he couldn’t have his favorite brand of mineral water? A fusser who obsessively folded his daily newspapers just so, who got annoyed if things weren’t lined up in their precise order? An aloof man who nonetheless flirted with any pretty young woman he met?
Could these accounts really tally with one of the world’s most beloved men, Nelson Mandela?
In his lifetime, Mandela always insisted that he wasn’t a saint, and by all accounts was quite irritated with the gilded view of him as an almost mystical figure.
He even asked the Nelson Mandela Foundation to avoid using images of his face, which had become a kind of trademark, and focus on other things, such as his hands. He ordered them to make room for other people’s voices and memories. But the idolatry endured.
The myth had a price, said Verne Harris, project leader at the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory, a unit of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
“In the process, all the complexities of this human being, all the flaws and elements of his characters and his life which don’t fit just get left out,” he said. “There’s a lot of ignorance. After all, he led an armed struggle. By many definitions he was a terrorist. That’s been washed away.”
Even though he rebelled against his status as an icon, Mandela was complicit in the narrative that was stripped of the warts and all, a myth-making process that had its origin in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Harris said the original draft of Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” as put together by a collective of senior African National Congress figures at Robben Island prison, had a political objective: international support for the ANC and its vision.
“The ANC decided way back in the mid-1970s to use Mandela as the symbol of the struggle. The concept of the autobiography was very closely linked to the struggle,” Harris said. “In terms of the generation of text, this is the story of an individual but always planned in the context of collective leadership.”
Politics called for a portrait of a leader without blemish.
Mandela wrote the first draft in his cell. It then went to senior ANC figures Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and Mac Maharaj for successive editing before being smuggled out of prison. After his release in 1990 came more editing. The publishers tried to coax more personal details from Mandela, which he resisted. And he insisted on expunging some elements, like a stray remark in which he’d called someone haughty. In his old-fashioned and rather prim way, he felt the remark inappropriate.
“It is already growing more difficult to go beyond the brittle shell of the official biography, to see Mandela's imperfections and contradictions — the details that make him human,” Adam Roberts, a former Economist correspondent, wrote at Mandela’s 90th birthday. “Once he has received his state funeral, it will be harder still. As with Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa, the myth will take over and the person will become a mere icon, hollowed out and revered, but little understood.”
In the end, Mandela realized the book played a role in deifying him. The 2010 book “Conversations With Myself,” put together by the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory, took a hammer to the image.
It even includes his comments on allegations that he had beaten his first wife, Evelyn Mase. Mandela said he had wrenched her arm to make her drop the bar she had picked up to attack him, in what clearly was a very unhappy marriage. After his release from prison, she would accuse him of adultery.
In his Economist portrait of Mandela, Roberts mined the small, mundane areas, looking for the flaws that made Mandela real.
“Mandela runs on self-control, structuring his life down to the smallest details. Speak to those who know Mandela best, who are least in awe of the myth, and they make it clear their friend has some less attractive qualities. A common gripe is that he is aloof.
“Mandela can be pernickety [sic],” he wrote. “He insists on carbonated water and complains if he gets the wrong brand.”
He could be dogmatic and stubborn, said his last wife, Graca Machel, interviewed by Al Jazeera television in 2008. “He also gets angry. He is somehow stubborn. You need to convince him. You have to have a very good argument to make him change his mind. And so he has weaknesses.