Nelson Mandela: a figure of literary inspiration

By Ace Moloi

Not only has President Mandela lived a life of political interest, but of literary inspiration too, writes Ace Moloi.

The launching pad of writing careers
President Nelson Mandela has been a subject of literary interest throughout his life and beyond his lifetime. His life and career launched many writers politically and creatively, who have produced text in academic discourse, the film industry, narrative non-fiction and other creative works. It takes no effort to locate a book written in his honour in any bookshop, or to find writings on him digitally, and this alone speaks of his great influence on the literary community.

Conversations with himself
President Mandela himself appreciated writing as a tool for self-contemplation, honest evaluation and emotional health. Having spent 27 years of his active life in prison, which sometimes meant solitary confinement, President Mandela resorted to writing his thoughts, his feelings and his fears down.

In his self-reflections, published in Conversations with Myself, President Mandela makes public his innermost thoughts, pulled from his personal archive. The book classically demonstrates the relationship he developed with the pen. It teaches us – the young change agents – the importance of personal journalism, events write-ups, observations and every detail that the fast-paced society of today generally overlooks.

It is imperative that we take time to ourselves, in quietness, so as to be attuned to ourselves. In President Mandela young writers learn the value of facing themselves, and writing critically about themselves.

Love letters to Nomzamo
President Mandela and his then wife Nomzamo Madikizea-Mandela (hereafter properly referred to as “Mama”) kept the fire of their love burning through the writing of letters. Though censored and some parts torn out of meaning, it is these letters that whispered sweet little nothings of hope, companionship and assurance to Mandela the prisoner. In times of darkness and solitude, reading Mama’s words quelled the spirit of despair that
threatened to engulf him, whilst giving an account of his household happenings.

Through these letters, it was as if the two lovebirds were teaching us, young people of instant messaging, that the profoundest act of romance is a thoroughly considered, detailed love letter to objects of our love. It is as though they were beckoning us to revisit the might of the pen, the beauty of literature, and narrate our own stories of Romeo and Juliet, Rolihlahla and Nomzamo.

A man of files
Not only has President Mandela taken a long walk to freedom, he wrote about it too, so that none of us would have to travel kilometres of route to learn about our past, but just visit our nearest library to read about it in Long Walk to Freedom, a riveting memoirs that tells the story of humble beginnings, difficult moments, victory and more hills to climb. In it we find a familiarity of circumstance, which reminds us that our dreams are valid. Furthermore, we derive for ourselves lessons from President Mandela’s generation’s errors, refine their tactics and buoy up brevity as we write ourselves into existence.

But personally, a lesson I take from this book is more about the behind-thescenes of it than the actuality of its publication. In 1974 when President Mandela started secretly writing his manuscript, each page of it was reviewed by his friends and epistemic peers, Ahmed Kathrada and Walter Sissulu. This indicates – at least basically – the importance of peer-review in the writing community, correctly to say that quality assurance in literature is of paramount importance.

Moreover, the effort it took President Mandela to complete the original manuscript (500 pages) reveals just how much he valued literature and its role in human affairs. Though it was a punishable offence to write politically on Robben Island, and despite the daily back-breaking toils, he persisted in writing his story, I would imagine motivated by the proverbial expression: until the lion learns literacy, every hunting story will be to the glory of the literate hunter.

We have none of the prison hardships President Mandela was sentenced to. Instead, we have access to literature. There are more publishing options for different financial brackets. We have social media for expanded reach and networking with experienced wordsmiths. Really, what could possibly be our excuse?

Rewriting Mandela: a challenge for young writers
Much has been said about the legacy of President Mandela. He has immensely and selflessly contributed to the making of a new South Africa, and went on to become the nation’s moral compass post-presidentially. He left us not only with his politics, but his literature too. A man boasting a wealth of archives, it is up to us to go deeper: to ask the right questions, to think of him anew, to rewrite his flaws, yet simultaneously honour his rich impact on humanity.
It is through reading and writing that President Mandela became an agent of change. Therefore, we should run forward with pens as spears, and books as shields.

Ace Moloi is a Bloemfontein-based author of three books: Holding My Breath, In Her Fall Rose a Nation and Tholwana Tsa Tokoloho. His work has been featured by every media institution that takes itself seriously. For more information on his work, follow him on Facebook and Twitter

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