Pulp(ing) facts about that Mandela book

Posted on July 26, 2017


The withdrawal and probably pulping, at considerable cost, of thousands of copies of South Africa’s former surgeon-general Vijay Ramlakan’s book, Mandela’s Last Years is unprecedented in South African publishing. During the apartheid era, books — including, notoriously, the equine classic, Black Beauty — were often banned and confiscated, but no publisher, having released a book, has, until now, withdrawn it.

There has, however, been one case when planned publication of an unauthorised biography of controversial “sun king” hotel and casino magnate, Sol Kerzner was stopped. That was after the manuscript of the book about fell into Kerzner’s hands.

After legal threats, the Kerzner book was not published. This was unusual. The normal practice, when there are complaints about a book is to point out that, if there is anything libelous, or otherwise offensive, there are legal channels through which complaints can be taken.

In the case of Mandela’s Last Years it seems there is nothing actionable about it. There are certainly errors, as Nelson Mandela Foundation director Sello Hattang has pointed out. And some of what was written may be in bad taste and provides nothing new to what is already known about the global icon.

But threats, both legal and otherwise, have often been levied against both authors and publishers. However, where there were no clear legal reasons, books have not been withdrawn and, in fact, because of the resultant publicity about demands for withdrawal, have probably achieved greater sales.

One such case was the unflattering unauthorised 1987 biography of the controversial German born British/Rhodesian tycoon, Roland “Tiny” Rowland by Richard Hall. Publishers Faber & Faber never budged and Rowland could only dismiss the book with the memorable sentence: “What Richard Hall knows about me could fit on the back of a postage stamp.”

But six years earlier there was case of a mass withdrawal and pulping of a British published book concerning South Africa. Inside BOSS, the exposé of the workings of the notorious Bureau and State Security and his own spying activities by gangster turned journalist, turned spy, Gordon Winter, was withdrawn from worldwide release and pulped.

There were some threats of legal action, but the prime reason was that Adelaide Tambo, wife of ANC acting president Oliver Tambo was revealed as an important, if unwitting, source of information for Winter. She was distraught and her case was taken up by Ronald Segal, an ANC supporter and founder of publisher Penguin’s successful African Library.

What deal, if any, was struck — Segal, whose family owned the Ackermans store chain, was independently wealthy — is not known. But the book was withdrawn, although several thousand copies had already been sold. “New” copies are now available on the internet for R599.

Segal died in 2008 and Winter lives in south-west England.