The Man Who Smuggled Mandela’s Memoirs

Mac Maharaj, Colleague and Friend of Mandela, Discusses New Book

mandela

In 1976, Mac Maharaj smuggled Nelson Mandela’s memoirs out of prison.

Maharaj had been incarcerated with Mandela and several other anti-apartheid activists for twelve years in South Africa’s infamous RobbenIsland prison. Anticipating Maharaj’s release that year, some of the imprisoned African National Congress (ANC) leaders urged Mandela to write his memoirs so that Maharaj might smuggle them out.

Writing ten to fifteen pages a night, Mandela finished the memoirs in four months, with Maharaj and fellow prisoner Laloo Chiba recopying his words in miniscule handwriting on thin sheets of paper. In secret, Chiba constructed an album of maps with the memoirs and other essays by ANC activists concealed within the book’s covers.

When Maharaj walked out of prison, he carried the book in plain sight. It would be nearly two decades before it finally saw publication–the memoirs as the basis for Mandela’s legendary autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (1995), the essays as Reflections in Prison (2001).

Writing ten to fifteen pages a night, Mandela finished the memoirs in four months. When Maharaj walked out of prison, he carried the book in plain sight.

Maharaj–who was instrumental to South Africa’s transition to democracy, and served as the Minister of Transport in its first democratic government–now teaches at Bennington College as part of its ongoing Democracy Project. The story above, and hundreds of others from Mandela’s extraordinary life, are recorded in the book for which Maharaj recently served as an editorial consultant–Mandela: The Authorized Portrait, which was released this month.

If Long Walk to Freedom was Mandela’s story in Mandela’s words, The Authorized Portrait tells the story through the voices of dozens of people familiar with the man whose decades-long struggle helped forge a democratic South Africa. Woven together with historic documents, letters, and photographs, the resulting tome–a substantial coffee-table book–is in fact more like a 360-degree portrait than a linear biography.

Maharaj and Ahmed Kathrada, the other editorial consultant,  have been described as Mandela’s closest living comrades, and they appear in his story as both participants and commentators–along with international figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who wrote the introduction), President Bill Clinton (who wrote the forward), Kofi Annan, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bono, Muhammad Ali, and many others. The inclusion of so many perspectives–sixty interviews along with countless letters and other writings–was both an advantage and a challenge.

“Memory is an ongoing process of reconstructing your past into the present. Your present is constantly shaping the past.”

“Kathrada and I got involved because we felt that if the book was to have Mandela’s authorization, we had to make sure that the facts were as accurate as possible,” Maharaj says. “At that level of interpretation, our position has been that when people are dealing with their memory, they see what they want to see. You can’t tell them they’re wrong. But whenever we thought there was a perception or an interpretation that was questionable, we made sure that there were other viewpoints around the same incident in different places. Because I think that’s the nature of memory. It’s an ongoing process of reconstructing your past into the present. Your present is constantly shaping the past.”

Memory and the shaping of history is a subject especially dear to Maharaj. “The whole apartheid system was based on a denial that black people had a history, a culture, and so that past was always suppressed,” he says.  “Now, we’re living in a democracy. And so it’s absolutely necessary that what was already written in the history books is interrogated afresh, and what was never written about or talked about is written about and talked about.”

Those ideas were the basis for one of the courses he taught this term, In Search of Memory, in which he sought to investigate with students “the role of memories and shared experiences in the creation of democratic South Africa.” His other course this term, Nelson Mandela: Choices and Consequences, used Mandela’s life as “a backdrop and mirror for us to explore the strategic choices” that the African National Congress (ANC) had to make in the struggle for freedom in South Africa.

Spending twelve years in prison with Mandela  gives Mac Maharaj a rare and rich knowledge of Mandela the man, and not simply Mandela the icon.

Spending twelve years in prison with Mandela, and serving under him as the Minister of Transport in South Africa’s first democratic government, gives Maharaj a rare and rich knowledge of Mandela the man, and not simply Mandela the icon. The two remain close friends, and still see each other socially on a regular basis. And yet the making of this book brought Maharaj to a new understanding of his friend and colleague.  “Because the Authorized Portrait has been such a large project, and because of my editorial responsibilities, I have been forced to look at Mandela from other people’s points of view. It has made me realize that people’s views of him do change over time…. I’m accustomed to my own personal reaction, so putting together all these views into a complex picture has been a new experience for me.”

 [first published at www.bennington.edu]