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.
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.