A controversial book about Nelson Mandela’s last years has been withdrawn. Flickr
Amid conjecture, speculation and a sea of assumptions about a book – “Mandela’s last years” – that most people have not been at liberty to read, including myself – it’s only fair and reasonable to raise a number of questions we hope will be addressed in the near future.
The book was released at bookstores throughout South Africa in late July. The author, Dr Veejay Ramlakan, head of Mandela’s medical team, reportedly wrote the book to document the courage and strength of this global icon up to the very end of his life.
But, some family members - notably his widow Graca Machel - and executors of the Mandela estate, have publicly distanced themselves from the book. Machel also reportedly sought legal counsel. Objections have been raised about alleged breaches of confidentiality and disclosure of private information.
While the author claims that he wrote the book with the permission of a family member, the identity of this member remains unknown. The publishers, in acknowledgement of respect for family unhappiness and threats of legal action, subsequently withdrew the book.
Many questions remain about the content of this book. What was already in the public domain prior to publication? What new information was disclosed? Does the public have a legitimate interest in the alleged disclosures in the book?
Historically, many books have been written and published about public figures. Think of Mahatma Gandhi, Diana, Princess of Wales and other prominent politicians, statesmen and leaders including Nelson Mandela himself. What is unique about this book is that it has been written by a medical doctor and anti-apartheid activist. And that it has been written about the last years of his patient and comrade who is also a global icon.
It’s not the first time that a medical professional has written about his life, work or patients. But most such works have been written with the subject being portrayed anonymously, or with consent – to adhere to the sacrosanct rules of professionalism that promote confidentiality around the doctor-patient relationship. In this case, however, it is clearly impossible to anonymise a story about someone as uniquely identifiable as Mandela.
One can only imagine that this dilemma must have created several competing conflicts of interest for the author based on competing loyalties. These include loyalty to a patient during his lifetime and posthumously (as enshrined in the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Geneva), his loyalty to the state as an employee of the South African Defence Force and his personal right to freedom of expression. On the face of it, satisfying all these loyalties would have required a number of negotiations and engagements – with professional bodies, medical ethicists, the South African Defence Force as well as the next of kin and executors of Mandela’s estate. This is an assumption and so the extent to which this did or did not occur remains unclear at this point in time.
Family dynamics are complex and challenging at the best of times in almost all families. This has been illustrated globally with the British Royal family, the Kennedys, Obamas, European monarchy and many others.
In Africa, the personal and public lives of leaders, statesmen and politicians have been widely discussed in the public media. When such disclosures, debates and publications are in the public interest, it’s often easily sanctioned by civil society. The public figures and their families accept such transparency as an integral part of public life.