In view of his recent health problems, I was drawn once again to the wonder that is the story of Nelson Mandela’s life, but instead of reading his autobiography I decided on a new release that is perhaps even more personal. Consciously titled Conversations With Myself, is a book made solely of Mandela’s letters and recordings. Reading it feels a bit like spying on someone’s private diary, full of moments that differ on importance but end up providing a truthful portrait of a man who refuses to be viewed as a legend.
There are excerpts about his imprisonment and his tenacity in fighting for his cause, but it is his struggle to be viewed as a simple human being that is the most striking aspect of the work; the humility he demonstrates in face of his achievements is nothing if not commendable. The book includes a foreword by Barack Obama, in which the President writes that Mandela’s willingness to admit and own up to his faults is what makes him such an example: “(…) Nelson Mandela reminds us that he has not been a perfect man. Like all of us, he has his flaws. But it is precisely these imperfections that should inspire each and everyone of us.” The difference between humans and saints is that saints don’t give up – not that they, being human, never sin.
Mandela was raised between two worlds. His education was English, but his culture was African. This dual disposition, which the book demonstrates well, was what allowed him to fight to preserve his own ethnicity through democratic, western standards: “Western civilization did not completely erase my African origin (…) I still respect the elders in our community and I enjoy talking with them about the old times, when we had our own government and lived in freedom,” he wrote when he was already in prison. This ability to live between two realities made him an observer of human behavior, taught him to analyze the differences in expectations and experience.
Remarkably, Mandela never stopped trusting people; in fact, trust is something he considers to be one of his greatest virtues, even if others see it as his greatest weakness or downfall. The texts show that he could have left prison much sooner than he actually did, and that his refusal to all offers was due to steel determination to settle for nothing less than what he believed was right for his people. He could not have done it without faith, but most of all he could not have done it without trust in his fellow human beings.
Mandela writes that we all know we cannot control everything around us, but that we forget we can control the way we react to them. The logic is simple, and yet it speaks a lot about the man. He claims mistakes are inherent to all political action, but that with time and willingness to critically assess one’s work, one can acquire the experience and vision to avoid common errors and make correct decisions, even amidst the pressing rush of troubled events.
If he was an ‘in-betweener’, if you will, he was also ahead of his time in many aspects. His position in regards to women, for example, is heartening. He praises women’s intelligence and deems necessary their public involvement in social and political issues. It is this awareness of others beyond himself, and society in general, that never ceases to inspire.