Hildegarde The Arena
AUTHORISED and unauthorised biographies about famous personalities are a part of society the world over. Both forms of biography are usually viewed sceptically.
Barely a week after Penguin Random House South Africa (PRHSA) published “Mandela’s Last Years”, a biography written by his doctor of 10 years and, head of his medical team, Lieutenant-General Vejay Ramlakan, who was also a former Surgeon-General with the South African National Defence Forces, the book is already mired in unbelievable controversy.
According to media reports “Mandela’s Last Years” hit the bookstores last week on July 17, but a week later, on Monday July 24 (PRHSA) was forced to withdraw the title from circulation because of the contestations surrounding the book.
In a statement PRHSA said, “No further copies of the book would be issued out of respect for the late Mr (Nelson) Mandela’s family . . . The book was meant to portray Nelson Mandela’s courage and strength until the very end of his life, and was in no way intended to be disrespectful. However, given the statements from family members, we have decided to withdraw the book.”
The reported dispute pits Mandela’s widow Graca Machel, some members of Mandela’s family, the SANDF, the Health Professions Council and others against the doctor, who reportedly now faces a 10-year jail term.
Graca Machel in a statement last Friday said, “I condemn Vejay Ramlakan’s book “Mandela’s Last Years” in the strongest terms. It is an affront to and an assault on the trust and dignity of my late husband‚ President Nelson Mandela. It breaches the doctor–patient relationship of confidentiality and I am taking legal advice on whether to institute legal proceedings against the author and its publisher.”
When the publisher PRHSA eventually buckled to pressure and the backlash, Mandela’s grandson Mandla issued a statement on behalf of the family saying: “We believe this is the correct choice as it upholds the dignity of our world icon and respects the wishes of his family to guard the sanctity of his last moments.
“We applaud Penguin for acting decisively and wish to express our sincere appreciation to them for taking heed and being sensitive to the feelings of the family and those entrusted with the protection of Madiba’s legacy‚” Mandla said in part.
He added, “We trust that this withdrawal sends out a strong message to those who desire to do the legacy of Nkosi Dalibhunga a disservice and who put the good name of President Mandela and his family at risk for paltry gain. The private and personal disclosures made in the book would have been a sad day in which profit triumphed over dignity‚ honour and respect.”
While the writer agrees with some schools of thought regarding ethical issues raised on the doctor’s part, what is quite disturbing is the aggressive approach towards ensuring that the book is out of circulation.
However, does that withdrawal mean that they have succeeded in banning the book, considering that it had been on sale for almost a week, and also considering that the controversy probably made many potential readers want to have it as a collector’s item? Was the book only withdrawn in South Africa?
In this age of technological developments and open sources, how effective is the withdrawal, considering that some buyers might just upload it on the Internet, and the book becomes available to all and sundry at the touch of a button/screen?
Maybe it is naivety, but I never believed that we would have such a development, even if it is profit-driven, in a democratic South Africa, democracy of which Nelson Mandela stands as a towering figure. It was Mandela who after all said: “A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”
The iconic Mandela stood for openness, and all the attributes of the Freedom Charter, that include freedoms of conscience, expression and access to information. These are rights protected by the Constitution.
If such a book would have been written during his time, how would Mandela have responded? Would he have joined the bandwagon throwing stones at his doctor of 10 years?
Mandela forgave the architects of the evil apartheid system, and it is unlikely that he would have attacked Dr Ramlakan the way some people who were close to him are doing, notwithstanding that the doctor acted unethically by breaching the doctor-patient confidentiality.
The writer analyses this issue with the full knowledge that the book becomes another instrument to show the dynamics of family and national politics.
When it is about Mandela, everyone wants to call the shots. If all these people, who seem concerned about preserving Mandela’s dignity and legacy have genuine intentions, we question why there was conspicuous silence when controversial graphic artist Ayanda Mabulu in April this year, produced an artwork featuring Mandela and President Zuma in a compromising position.
So grotesque was the artwork that it was roundly condemned, with the Mandela Foundation saying, “As much as we respect Mr Mabulu’s freedom of expression through his art, we’re also are disturbed by the image.” But there was no pressure on Ayanda to withdraw the piece of art, and the argument in some circles was that Ayanda was exercising his freedom of speech.
Thus the abhorrent picture, which repoliticised and dented Mandela’s legacy can be found on a number of websites.
My point of departure is when I wear my Library and Information Science professional hat, and I have to look at the attacks on the book (not the author) through that lens.
Libraries have collection development policies, and they also have policies that govern how they treat information materials that are challenged for one reason or the other, for information dissemination is dependent on robust and proactive policies that are cognisant of the diversity of the nature of information in every discipline.
Library and Information professionals understand the ramifications of censorship and/or banning of information materials. Readers’ information needs make the profession what it is.
So, it would be childlike to think that South African librarians ignored the publication of this book, and failed to buy it. The publisher, Penguin Random House is a publisher of note. The million dollar question is: for those libraries that bought copies of “Mandela’s Last Years”, and others that wanted to buy it, how are they viewing the developments around the book? Have they also withdrawn it from circulation among library users?
By threatening the author with litigation, which subsequently led the publisher to withdrawing the book, are libraries justified if they say that “Mandela’s Last Years” has been labelled, and it has also been censored and/or banned?
This is a fundamental issue in library land, notwithstanding that the individuals and/or groups seeking to do it might have valid reasons.
We have books such as Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, which have been challenged and threatened with censorship by various interest groups since its publication in 1884, but they never succeeded because librarians, using the “Intellectual Freedom Manual” have protected the readers’ interests, and the artiste’s intellectual property rights.
It might also surprise many to know that in some countries, the Bible, despite being a bestseller is one of the most challenged books, with some interest groups seeking its censorship. This happens in countries where Christianity is the dominant faith.
The writer has been guided by some of the material she used during training and as an information practitioner. In May 1953, the American Library Association issued a statement they titled “The Freedom to Read”, which says in part: “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack. Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove books from sale, to censor textbooks, to label ‘controversial’ books, to distribute lists of ‘objectionable’ books or authors, and to purge libraries.”
The statement adds, “We are deeply concerned about these attempts at suppression. Most such attempts rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary citizen, by exercising his critical judgment will accept the good and reject the bad. The censors, public and private, assume that they should determine what is good and what is bad for their fellow citizens.”
Censorship is anachronistic. It is up to readers to surmise whether “Mandela’s Last Years” has been deliberately suppressed, to the detriment of potential readers. But the bottom line is that ideas cannot be evicted.