How Did Mandela Tell His Story?

Ahmed Kathrada, one of the seven political prisoners sentenced alongside Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia Trial, recalls the birth of Mandela’s autobiography: “The manuscript Madiba wrote on Robben Island was not as dense as “Long Walk To Freedom” which was much more developed and researched. It was used as the basis for his book. When Madiba turned 60 and we had been in prison for 10 years, we thought that the time had come for us to make a political statement and that getting him to write his autobiography would be the way. This was kept a secret even from ANC people, except those of us who were directly involved. The process was that he would write whatever he could and give it to me for my comments, which I would write in the margin, and then pass on to Walter Sisulu for his comments. Then, with our comments, Madiba would write the final version and send it to Mac Maharaj who - in minuscule writing - reduced 600 pages to 50 double-sided pages.”

Kathrada describes the cautious planning of their undercover process. As Maharaj was being released after serving a 12 year sentence, the job to smuggle the manuscript off the Island and send it to exiles in London fell to him. Once he reached his destination the plan was to send Kathrada an innocuous postcard confirming that it was out of danger and that they could destroy the original - which they had compressed into small plastic containers and buried in the garden. “We thought we were safe and didn’t destroy it, but when the prison authorities built a wall through the garden we hastily managed to retrieve and destroy some of the notes, but the rest was confiscated and our punishment was a 4 year deprivation of studies for writing this illegal document.”

Kathrada discusses the movie: “We do not want Robben Island to be a Museum of our Suffering. It’s a prison that symbolizes victory, because it has never occurred in history that an individual has stepped out of the shoes of a prisoner, into Parliament and on to become President in such a short space of time. It is my hope that the movie will go beyond Madiba and highlight his legacy; what he stood for, and what he’s always emphasized.” He himself has gone out of his way to say that he is very worried that people have built him up into a saint. In fact, that quotation is in his Book of Quotations. It worried him all the time. As he has always emphasized, he is part of a collective. He doesn’t take decisions on his own.” 

“Telling Madiba’s story and those of the people around him is a very big privilege, and even more significant is that we have access to people like Ahmed Kathrada, who spent 26 years right alongside Madiba in the cell next door to him. It has been invaluable to have a resource like him, but more importantly that he could experience and share the development of the movie through its journey and incarnations over the years. He’s been there from the first day that I got the rights.” says Anant Singh.