July 27, 2017
PRH South Africa publishes a book about Nelson Mandela, then unpublishes it a few days later
by Peter Clark
Sometimes as a book publisher, you set out to publish nonfiction that is salacious, true, and courageous. You say to yourself, “This book will make a difference; people will read it and have new information that will inspire courage and respect.” You acquire the manuscript, edit it extensively, confirm details, get a legal read, design a cover, release early copies to the press, and garner buzz. It often takes years.
And then, on the day it hits stores, it can all turn into high-grade dilberry.
July 18th of last week turned out that way for Penguin Random House (PRH) South Africa. It was Nelson Mandela Day, and a new book about Madiba’s final days was hitting shelves. Mandela’s Last Days, written by the legend’s personal physician, Vejay Ramlakan, detailed the last few years of the man who led South Africa out of Apartheid. But immediately upon its release, news agencies around the country began reporting that people were not happy with the book.
Revealing information about the physical and mental degeneration of a man who lived into his mid-nineties, the book gave unflattering details about the medical care he had to receive. For many, this seemed to tarnish the great man’s legacy.
According to South Africa’s Eyewitness News, Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, was “disturbed by reports that she gave permission for the publication of the controversial book.” Explaining the fact that she had seemingly signed off on the book, Mandela explained in a statement:
In terms of the autograph I gave to the author, this was a courtesy on my part for someone who had cared for Madiba. He brought me the first copy and he said: ‘Mama can you sign the first copy?’ I am asked for my autograph often, and my autograph has never become an endorsement of anything.
Agence France-Presse reports that Mandela’s third wife was deeply upset:
[The book] revealed several undignified episodes at the end of Mandela’s life as well as bitter family squabbles over his care and legacy, prompting fury from his widow, Graça Machel, who threatened legal action…
Machel accused Ramlakan, a former military surgeon, of breaching patient confidentiality.
Ultimately, PRH South Africa took the book off sale on Monda, without reporting how many copies they’ve already sold. Meanwhile, the book’s revelations continue to stir controversy: it claims, for instance, that a spy camera was discovered in the morgue where Mandela’s body was stored before his funeral, prompting speculation about either interloping media or government interference with the end of his life.
Perhaps this story will be shared again someday in the future. For now, the topic remains a delicate one.
Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.