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attention. But is it right that his musings should have been shaped by others into the form of a European-style memoir?


The book is inevitably the focus of huge


Egypt. He went not to study but on urgent business: to undergo a crash course in in- surrectionary warfare as a necessary step toward dismantling European minority rule in South Africa. Yet he remembers: “My chief inter-


est was to find out the type of men who founded the high civilisation of olden times that thrived in the Nile Valley as far back as 5000 BC. Tis was not merely a question of archaeological interest but one of cardinal importance to African thinkers … concerned with the collection of evidence to explode the fictitious claim that civilisation began in Europe and that Africans have no rich past that can com- pare with theirs.” In a 1987 letter to the South African


“As a youth, Mandela


wished to study African history and culture seriously. Because of


apartheid, he could not. So he sought mentors, trying to learn about the African past.”


Te word “steeped” implies a degree of


immersion in European culture not borne out in Mandela’s statements. Concerning his intellectual achieve-


ments, Mandela evaluates himself as a “mediocre man”. By this he means his educational development was so structured that it did not allow him to rise above aver- age levels of instruction. Consequently, he says he is someone who possesses “scraps of superficial information on a variety of subjects, but who lacks depth and expert knowledge on the one thing in which I ought to have specialised, namely the history of my country and people.” Evidently, in his youth, Mandela


wished to study African history and cul- ture seriously. Because of apartheid, he could not. Even so, Mandela sought men- tors, trying to learn about the African past. He listened to knowledgeable elders who “could trace the movements of each section


of our people from the North.” He men- tions Skota, Tema, Luthuli, Matthews, Marks, Kotane. Normally, these mentors would have been researchers and profes- sors teaching African history, philosophy and culture at universities and research institutions. But under apartheid, their information could only come to Mandela along informal channels. He says no one ever briefed him “on


how we would finally remove the evils of colour prejudice, the books I should read in this connection and the political organi- sations I should join if I wanted to be part of a disciplined freedom movement. I had to learn all these things by mere chance and through trial and error.”


Mandela in Egypt In case you still wonder what kind of his- tory Mandela dreamed of studying, con- sider his musings on a short 1962 trip to


university administration, Mandela wrote: “I hereby apply for exemption from Latin on the following grounds. Although I obtained a pass in this subject in the 1938 matriculation examination, and … passed a special course in the same subject at the University of Witwatersrand in 1944, I have forgotten practically everything about it.” Elsewhere, Mandela also requests per-


mission to substitute African Politics for Latin. Hardly an avowal of deep immer- sion in the European classics. Patently, Mandela would have loved


to plunge his consciousness into the long stream of African history and memory. His memory managers and publishers, on the other hand, seem content to integrate his memory into the Western cultural universe. Tis tension surfaces, in other parts of the book, sometimes so subtly a casual reader might miss it. Mandela is much written about. Read-


ers might therefore expect to find little that’s new here. Yet there are mild surpris- es. One is Mandela’s stance on the issue of “natural” rulers. Born a Xhosa prince, he might be expected to favour chieftaincy. On the other hand, his rational politics made him a champion of universal equal- ity. So do his political convictions out- weigh his inherited prejudices? Mandela’s response will surprise egali-


tarians. “We must never forget,” he says, “that the institution of traditional leaders is sanctified by African law and custom, by our culture and tradition. No attempt must be made to abolish it.” Given the sorry record of hereditary rulers in the African people’s spoliation,


New African March 2011 | 75


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