By Karen Allen
Nelson Mandela’s biography The Long Walk to Freedom became an international bestseller and is being made into a film. But the famous book may never have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for the bravery and persistence of another Robben Island inmate.
“We were housed in individual cells, each cell had a window looking out into the corridor. Warders patrolled day and night, lights were on 24 hours a day.”
Mac Maharaj was one of four long-term prisoners on Robben Island secretly collaborating on the first draft of the autobiography of Nelson Mandela – along with other Africa National Congress activists Ahmed Kathrada and Walter Sisulu.
“Mandela had to write every night. He wrote on average 10-15 pages with very little reference material – he wrote by discussion and recollection,” says the 76-year-old.
“The next morning it would circulate to Kathrada and Sisulu for their comments, which would come back to me to transcribe. And the next night he would write another 10-15 pages.”
Both men would sometimes feign illness so they could stay in the grounds and spend their time working alone in the prison quadrangle. Writing was strictly a night time affair, but this was their opportunity to discuss the copy and the edits.
Their determination to write overcame the fear of being caught.
“We were living in a society where the history of our struggle was not covered anywhere – not even in academia. Everything in history was the history about the white man.
“So that in itself was an exciting exercise to put down on paper the life of one man who was so central [to the struggle], and whose autobiography was really a political autobiography. One had a sense that Mandela had already become a national and international figure and that it would be an inspiration to read our history.”