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Over the years since his release, Mandela has teased visitors with the comment that he is still not free, while pointing a finger at his personal assistants: “And these are my jailers.” We can now pose the question more clearly: To which cultural universe does the personal memory of Nelson Mandela belong? Is it part of the collective memory of South Africans in particular and Africans in general? Or is it part of Europe’s globalising civilisation? asks Ayi Kwei Armah, the Ghanaian literary icon, in this review of Mandela’s new book, Nelson Mandela, Conversations with Myself.


Liberating


Mandela’s memory


M


andel a’s new book, neither an autobiography nor a structured memoir, is a se- ries of musings held together by the major intellectual con-


cerns of the man. It was conceived as a project of the Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue, whose Memory Programme director, Verne Harris, guided the selection of archival passages for inclusion. He also determined its literary form. Mandela, too old and tired to take


direct control over the book’s creation, entrusted his helpers with the pre-press work. Tis arrangement produced a gen- tle tension rippling through the book.


72 | March 2011 New African


For though the helpers share Mandela’s political affiliations, it’s not certain that they belong to the same cultural universe. Te tension starts with the title, then


quickly escalates into real philosophical conflict with the formal organisation of the text. Te text we can deal with briefly. Mandela is explicitly shy about autobi-


ography. His reason is that the form can so easily be abused for self-flattery. Tis is a rather unusual, somewhat original at- titude, especially in this age when every average fellow yearns to star on the TV screen. For a sensibility so little inclined to navel-gazing, the title Conversations with Myself is way too narcissistic. A bit more imagination, and Mandela’s helpers would surely have found a better title. Te matter of the organisational form


chosen for the book is less trivial, for it concerns a question bound to grow increas- ingly important in these coming years: To which cultural universe does the personal memory of Nelson Mandela belong? To the collective memory of the op-


pressed Africans whose struggle for politi- cal emancipation he helped to lead? Or to the memory bank of European civilisation, in whose name the defenders of apartheid declared Mandela and his comrades ter- rorists, and on whose behalf they arrested, incarcerated, and isolated him for over a quarter century? Te cultural world of Mandela’s cap-


tors, conventionally called Western civi- lisation, has over the past millennium grown vigorously, extending its control from its small European homeland to all continents. In the process, it has elaborated an impressive discourse presenting itself as not just European, but as universal. By contrast, the African cultural uni-


verse, the other matrix to which Mandela’s memory might be connected, has little institutional support on the world scale. European culture has publishing houses, film studios, major magazines, websites and transnational broadcasting services to propagate its viewpoints worldwide. Man- dela’s African world has had to fight even for the basic right to vote. So far, it has scant cultural, educational and media power with which to project its claim to world recogni- tion. Hence the inertial tendency even of helpers to integrate into sumptuous insti- tutions of the European universe, instead of creating the new institutions needed for the projection of African memory.


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