Man­dela’s mem­ory

He worked along­side Nel­son Man­dela for more than a decade, now Verne Har­ris is help­ing to bring the leader’s sto­ries to life in a new mem­oir with a Kiwi con­nec­tion, writes Brid­get Jones.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

When Verne Har­ris was 16, like most of the white males he grew up with, he was con­scripted into South Africa’s apartheid mil­i­tary for two years.

Har­ris re­cently re­vis­ited his per­sonal ar­chive from the time; a box of doc­u­ments and mem­o­ries he’d kept, but never touched. And then, after tak­ing part in a con­ver­sa­tion with both sides of South Africa’s trau­matic his­tory – those who served in the ANC’s armed wing and oth­ers like him who were army con­scripts – he re-read all of it, and then burnt it.

His part­ner ques­tioned whether their son should have the chance to un­der­stand that part of his past, but Har­ris just wanted to for­get. Har­ris ad­mits he came out of his army ex­pe­ri­ence ‘‘pretty bro­ken’’, but know­ing he needed to un­der­stand the his­tory of South Africa to make sense of it all. It was study­ing his­tory at uni­ver­sity that gave him the po­lit­i­cal aware­ness, the call­ing to be­come in­volved in cam­paign­ing for jus­tice.

‘‘I spent most of the rest of my life fix­ing my­self,’’ he re­mem­bers.

‘‘There is a deeper ques­tion for ev­ery hu­man – what sto­ries do you tell? And when you get to my stage of life, very of­ten it’s what do I burn?’’

Mem­o­ries and sto­ries, what to keep and what to for­get, are im­por­tant to Har­ris. After years of ‘‘help­ing out’’ he be­came Nel­son Man­dela’s per­sonal ar­chiv­ist in 2004, re­spon­si­ble for keep­ing safe the sto­ries and mem­o­ries of South Africa’s first black pres­i­dent.

Now, as the head of the Mem­ory Pro­gramme at the Nel­son Man­dela Foundation’s Cen­tre of Mem­ory and Di­a­logue, Har­ris is part of the team be­hind Man­dela’s Dare Not Linger: The Pres­i­den­tial Years.

It picks up shortly after where Long Walk to Free­dom, the first vol­ume of the late South African leader’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, left off. Long Walk to Free­dom de­tailed Man­dela’s child­hood and the nearly three decades he spent in prison on Robben Is­land after be­ing la­belled a ter­ror­ist by the apartheid gov­ern­ment.

Dare Not Linger tells the story of Man­dela’s time as pres­i­dent, re­ly­ing on a mem­oir he be­gan writ­ing in 1998, three years after the orig­i­nal was pub­lished, but was un­able to fin­ish be­fore his death in 2013.

The book was de­vel­oped with the New Zealand spe­cial­ist pub­lisher Blackwell & Ruth. Founder Geoff Blackwell knew Man­dela, after meet­ing him through Princess Diana’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives who had asked Blackwell to pro­duce the ‘‘au­tho­rised por­trait’’ of the late princess, and Man­dela to write the fore­word.

The Kiwi pub­lish­ing house have gone on to pro­duce three other books with Man­dela and his col­leagues at the Nel­son Man­dela Foundation.

Man­dela had al­ready as­sem­bled a team from the foundation when he be­gan writ­ing what would even­tu­ally be­come the book. After his death, Man­dela’s widow Grac¸a Machel drove a project that Har­ris calls a team ef­fort, sur­rounded by peo­ple who had worked with him when he was pres­i­dent; those who had a sense of him and could give life to his legacy.

‘‘It be­came my job to be project man­ager and hold it all to­gether,’’ Har­ris says with a know­ing laugh when it’s sug­gested a project of this scope could be like herd­ing cats.

‘‘But I have to be frank, I wasn’t wildly en­thu­si­as­tic [about the project].’’ In essence, he was a part of de­cid­ing which of Man­dela’s sto­ries they would help tell and which would be kept off the pages. From ex­pe­ri­ence, Har­ris knew tak­ing the 10 chap­ters writ­ten by Man­dela and turn­ing them into some­thing the world could en­joy and learn from would be a mam­moth task.

‘‘I had en­coun­tered these frag­ments of the project as we were pulling to­gether all of these pieces from Madiba’s of­fice, pa­pers that were com­ing from his house in batches. There wasn’t a box that was la­belled ‘this project’.’’

In all, there were thou­sands and thou­sands of doc­u­ments, record­ings, di­ary en­tries, notes and let­ters that were sifted through, as­sessed, and in some cases ver­i­fied – the team soon dis­cov­ered that of­ten what Man­dela wrote in his draft speeches was very dif­fer­ent to what he ac­tu­ally said.

The team worked for two years, and drew on four years of Man­dela’s own work, be­fore bring­ing in South African writer Mandla Langa to fin­ish what their pres­i­dent started. They needed a strong nar­ra­tive – not just tens of thou­sands of archival doc­u­ments plonked on a page.

‘‘It was a case of ‘here’s the ma­te­rial, here’s an ac­count, al­most a chronol­ogy, al­most blow by blow, here are the ar­chives, here are the in­ter­views, you now have a man­date to turn all of this into a com­pelling story’,’’ Har­ris says of Langa’s man­date.

‘‘And for me, that was the fi­nal el­e­ment. You want a sto­ry­teller to tell a story.’’ Har­ris was work­ing at a uni­ver­sity, and run­ning a small free­dom of in­for­ma­tion NGO when he was called on to help Man­dela with his record-keep­ing in 2001.

Dare Not Linger tells the story of Man­dela’s time as pres­i­dent, based on a mem­oir he bagan writ­ing in 1998.


Nel­son Man­dela and Verne Har­ris spent many hours work­ing and shar­ing sto­ries.

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