That’s fitting, because the editors of “Nelson Mandela By Himself” brought something close to religious zeal to the task of choosing and checking more than 2,000 quotations to ensure the world gets the anti-apartheid icon’s words right. The book was released Monday — days after U.S. first lady Michelle Obama got an advance copy signed by Mandela when she met him during a visit to South Africa.
Editors Sello Hatang and Sahm Venter work for Mandela’s foundation, which oversees charity and development work on his behalf and houses some of his archives. Hatang and Venter say the Nelson Mandela Foundation receives thousands of requests from researchers and others to confirm the accuracy of Mandela’s quotes.
In an interview Monday, Venter said quotations frequently queried are among those collected in the book, along with others she hopes help show Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and South Africa’s first black president, as a full human being.
And “you had to get in all the iconic quotes that everybody knows him for,” she said.
The editors turned to speeches, notebook entries, recorded conversations and other material, some until now unpublished, for the book.
Hatang and Venter say in their introduction: “We can all honor Nelson Mandela by quoting him correctly and accurately.”
The apartheid government once declared it illegal to quote Mandela. He is now, according to Hatang and Venter, among the most quoted people in the world. But they say he often is misquoted.
For a book that would slip easily into a jacket pocket, “Nelson Mandela By Himself” has a daunting table of contents. There are 317 subject headings, from accountability to Zionism. “Prison” is divided into a further 26 headings, one short of the 27 years Mandela was incarcerated, with his musings on his release, visitors, even contemplating escape.
Victory is found between vengeance — “We had to refuse that our long sacrifice should make a stone of our hearts” — and violence — “Great anger and violence can never build a nation.
“We are striving to proceed in a manner and towards a result, which will ensure that all our people, both black and white, emerge as victors,” from a 1990 speech to the European Parliament, is among eight victory quotations offered.
Hatang said his favorite quote is one in which Mandela speaks of learning from the silence of solitude while in prison “how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.”
Hatang said Mandela “has taught us that before you say something, think. We can give life with what we say.”
The book’s emphasis on the uplifting and the pedagogical might lead some to draw parallels to Mao’s little red book. But we also see Mandela questioning his choices:
“I have often wondered whether a person is justified in neglecting his own family to fight for opportunities for others.”
And there are flashes of his famous, self-deprecating humor:
“If only to emphasize that I am human, and as fallible as anyone else, let me admit that … accolades do flatter me.”
The quotations are arranged chronologically within each category, allowing readers a sense of how Mandela’s ideas developed over time — or in some cases held firm, as with his loyalty to regimes in Cuba and Libya that supported his African National Congress during the struggle against apartheid. His early observations on Africa suffering under imperialism evolve to more recent criticism of the continent’s homegrown tyrants.
On AIDS, a disease that has devastated South Africa, he becomes increasingly blunt as his urgency grows.
Here he is in 1992: “Many of us find it difficult to talk about sex to our children, but nature’s truth is that unless we guide the youth towards safer sex, the alternative is playing into the hands of a killer disease.”
And, simply, in 2005: “My son has died of AIDS.”