New Mandela book offers personal portrait

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Nelson Mandela failing classes, fussing over his children, fighting with his wife.

This is not the anti-apartheid icon of "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela’s 1995 autobiography. "Conversations with Myself," which goes on sale Tuesday in 22 countries and 20 languages from Catalan to Turkish, presents a more human Mandela, faults, frailties and all.

"Conversations" was compiled with the 92-year-old former South African president’s blessing by a team of archivists, editors and collaborators who worked from decades of notes, letters, recorded conversations and other material.

In a foreword, US President Barack Obama writes that Mandela, who largely retired from public life in 2004, is inspiring even if he is no saint.

"Underneath the history that has been made, there is a human being who chose hope over fear — progress over the prisons of the past," Obama wrote. "And I am reminded that even as he has become a legend, to know the man … is to respect him even more."

"Conversations" is best read as a companion to "Long Walk," which was in part calculated by Mandela and other members of his African National Congress party to stir support for anti-apartheid activists as they stepped into new roles as leaders trying to heal and develop a divided, impoverished nation.

As he puts it in "Conversations," an autobiography of "a freedom fighter must inevitably be influenced by the question whether the revelation of certain facts, however true they may be, will help advance the struggle."

Certainly, the possibility of violence within Mandela’s first marriage, to Evelyn Mase, who died in 2004, had no place in the official autobiography. But it has been raised elsewhere, including in "Young Mandela," an unauthorized biography by British writer David James Smith that appeared earlier this year.

In "Conversations," Mandela puts his version on record. In a transcript of a conversation with Ahmed Kathrada, a friend and fellow veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle who was helping him polish "Long Walk," Mandela denies he once tried to choke his first wife. Instead, he said, she threatened to burn him with a red hot poker.

"So I caught hold of her and twisted her arm, enough for me to take this thing out," Mandela says.

"The poker away," Kathrada responds.

Mandela: "That’s all."

Mandela has said his first wife did not understand or support his political activism. A second marriage, to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, also ended in divorce. His anguish over sacrificing family life to politics is a recurrent theme of "Conversations."

"I love playing and chatting with children, giving them a bath, feeding and putting them to bed with a little story, and being away from the family has troubled me throughout my political life," he writes in a passage drawn from an unpublished autobiography he had intended as a sequel to "Long Walk," but never completed.

Other "Conversations" passages are taken from notes Mandela made in calendars in his careful, upright penmanship. On Dec. 12, 1984, he jotted: "Results: failed all six subjects." He writes elsewhere of having too little time to study for his advanced law degree, taken by correspondence while he was in prison.

The editors of "Conversations" promise the Mandela behind the public figure. But a tell-all would be hard to imagine from Mandela, who spent years as a secretive underground ANC agent, and knew throughout his 27 years in prison that letters to even his closest confidants were being read and censored by apartheid authorities.

Mandela emerged from prison as the most famous African leader of the 20th century, whose words could have far-reaching impact. giving him more reason to be guarded. But there are fascinating glimpses of the inner man, and flashes of his celebrated humor in "Conversations."

He describes being taken from prison to a hospital to be treated for tuberculosis, and being presented with a breakfast of bacon and eggs despite being on a cholesterol-free diet. When an official warned him against defying doctor’s orders, he replied: "Today, I am prepared to die; I am going to eat it."

Sales of the book will benefit the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

The foundation, which houses a Mandela archives and supports development and other projects in his name, switched in recent years from a logo featuring Mandela’s face to one of his hands. That reflected his desire to shift the focus from himself, and his concern his legacy would mean little if South Africans did not take it upon themselves to build their country.

"It is in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it," Mandela said last year, calling on people around the world to celebrate his July 18 birthday by doing good for others.

"Conversations" presents a Mandela more people may feel they can emulate. It ends with a passage from his unpublished autobiography in which he insists he was never a saint — "Even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."

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