The furore over the pub­lish­ing of the lat­est Man­dela bi­og­ra­phy raises a host of ques­tions, writes

CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

Asure-fire way to ig­nite un­prece­dented in­ter­est in a book is ban­ning it or tak­ing it off shelf. Tell the pub­lic that the book is no longer avail­able be­cause of an im­pend­ing law­suit, and you have a best­seller on your hands.

When the news broke this week that Pen­guin Ran­dom House SA was im­me­di­ately with­draw­ing its re­cently pub­lished book, Man­dela’s Last Years – af­ter le­gal ac­tion was threat­ened on the grounds that the book broke doc­tor-pa­tient con­fi­den­tial­ity – I had no doubt that a pub­lish­ing phe­nom­e­non was un­leashed.

The book, penned by for­mer pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela’s physi­cian, Ve­jay Ram­lakan, of­fers in­ti­mate details of Madiba’s health con­di­tions and the Man­dela fam­ily dy­nam­ics around him. Man­dela’s Last Years hit the shelves on July 18 to co­in­cide with the late states­man’s birth­day. Ex­actly one week later, it was with­drawn.

With the print and elec­tronic me­dia latch­ing on to this story world­wide, it was in­evitable that even those who never buy or read books were in­trigued by what mem­bers of the Man­dela fam­ily, and Graça Machel in par­tic­u­lar, wanted to keep pri­vate.

Once ig­nited, pub­lic cu­rios­ity got the bet­ter of the na­tion. This news story has be­come a cir­cus.

Yet, for pub­lish­ers, who con­stantly be­moan the pub­lic’s dis­in­ter­est in book buying and read­ing, hav­ing a book­ish story as a lead­ing news item is some­thing of a god­send as it shines a spot­light on the in­dus­try. If only the furore did not in­volve such a uni­ver­sally loved icon as the late Madiba.

Fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment that the pub­lish­ers would no longer is­sue copies of the book, an un­prece­dented surge in in­ter­est en­sued. Book­sellers were inun­dated with in­quiries about the avail­abil­ity of Man­dela’s Last Years, and those who had pur­chased it dur­ing the week of its re­lease found them­selves



Do you think the au­thor erred in writ­ing the book? And what of the pub­lisher’s re­spon­si­bil­ity?

SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word MADIBA and tell us what you think. Please in­clude your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50 sud­denly own­ing a col­lec­tor’s item.

In the ad­ver­tis­ing world, there is no such thing as bad pub­lic­ity. See­ing Pen­guin Ran­dom House SA trending this past week may have en­cour­aged some bud­ding writ­ers to post their un­so­licited manuscripts to pub­lish­ers.

Over the past 15 years, South Africa has seen a mush­room­ing of lo­cally penned books, par­tic­u­larly bi­ogra­phies and po­lit­i­cal ac­counts. From Trevor Noah to Somizi Mh­longo to Bo­nang Matheba, the cult of the per­son­al­ity has been brought into the pub­lish­ing main­stream here, at­tract­ing a much broader read­er­ship.

The same goes for po­lit­i­cal ac­counts – books by for­mer pub­lic pro­tec­tor Thuli Madon­sela and for­mer Deputy Chief Jus­tice Dik­gang Moseneke are the re­cent ones that spring to mind.

While this bodes well for the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try, the fol­low­ing ques­tions re­gard­ing Man­dela’s Last Years must be asked: How could Pen­guin Ran­dom House SA have even con­tem­plated pub­lish­ing it – even if, as the com­pany claims, the au­thor con­firmed that fam­ily mem­bers had ap­proved of his writ­ing it – given that it dealt with Man­dela’s pass­ing? How are such de­ci­sions taken? Was the mo­tive for pub­lish­ing pure greed – a case of “mo­nop­oly cap­i­tal” prof­i­teer­ing from black pain? If Pen­guin Ran­dom House SA was so sure of the fam­ily’s con­sent, why did it re­nege on its ear­lier pro­nounce­ments that the book would re­main on shelf?

So, in with­draw­ing the book, did the com­pany sud­denly de­velop a con­science, or did the no­tion of a drawn-out lit­i­ga­tion with Madiba’s ex­ecu­tors do the trick? Surely you can­not af­ford to take on Madiba’s le­gacy and ex­pect to pub­lish books by pro­gres­sive na­tives in fu­ture – and have them buy your books, to boot?

Some ar­gue that the book should not have been pub­lished, given that it re­counts in­ti­mate details of Man­dela’s ail­ments, es­pe­cially at a time when he was re­tired and out of the pub­lic eye.

In this re­gard, the book may as well have been called Madiba’s Med­i­cal Di­ary. While ini­tial chap­ters cover Madiba’s pub­licly known ail­ments, it is the fol­low­ing ones, in which Ram­lakan records med­i­cal con­di­tions lead­ing up to Man­dela’s last mo­ments, that are so con­tentious. For in­stance, Ram­lakan tells of his pro­tracted hospi­tal stay at Pre­to­ria Medi­clinic Heart Hospi­tal that was not pub­lic knowl­edge. He also de­scribes what must have been an ex­cru­ci­at­ing time for the for­mer states­man and his fam­ily as he lies on his deathbed.

Th­ese rev­e­la­tions make us ques­tion the ethics of the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try, as well as those of Ram­lakan. If the man­u­script had not been writ­ten, the is­sue of pub­lish­ing would not have arisen. Yet there is this coun­ter­ar­gu­ment: re­fus­ing Ram­lakan pub­lish­ing rights would have amounted to cen­sor­ship – and self-cen­sor­ship, since it is claimed in the blurb and the pref­ace of the book that the Man­dela fam­ily con­sented to it be­ing writ­ten and pub­lished.

Machel and the ex­ecu­tors of Man­dela’s will have pub­licly stated that they had no knowl­edge of the book. Pit­ted against Ram­lakan’s in­sis­tence that he re­ceived the bless­ing of “cer­tain mem­bers of the Man­dela fam­ily” to go ahead with his man­u­script, the only thing that we, the pub­lic, know for sure is that di­vi­sions within the Man­dela fam­ily ex­ist.

With a plethora of books hav­ing been writ­ten about Madiba, there is no doubt that he is a pub­lish­ing phe­nom­e­non – and no doubt, a num­ber of manuscripts on his ma­jes­tic life are still in the pipe­line. This lat­est con­tro­versy serves as a les­son for au­thors and pub­lish­ers to keep eth­i­cal is­sues top of mind be­fore go­ing ahead.

Ngob­eni is a book pub­lisher and the 2007 South African fi­nal­ist in the Bri­tish Coun­cil’s In­ter­na­tional Young Pub­lisher

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