Reading Group Guide
1. In the book’s epigraph, Nelson Mandela writes to Winnie and describes the benefits of regular self-assessment, reminding her that “a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.” How did this mindset foster success for Mandela and his followers? How could this epigraph help you in your own endeavors for change in your community?
2. As Mandela reflected on childhood, what aspects of his education surprised you? How was he shaped by his varied role models, including tribal elders (the paramount chief in particular), traditional classroom teachers, and Christian leaders such as Reverend Matyolo? As a multilingual child, what insight was Rolihlahla Mandela (as his parents named him) able to gain?
3. Discuss the book’s title. In diaries, notebooks, and other “conversations” on the page, what has Mandela told himself throughout his life? What inner conflicts has he struggled with continually?
4. Though Mandela originally advocated non-violent civil disobedience, by the early 1960s he stated that the government was giving the ANC no choice but to arm itself. How did Mandela’s definition of a successful revolution evolve throughout the pages of Conversations with Myself? How did the ANC’s tactics compare with those of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and other figures in America’s civil rights movement?
5. What do Mandela’s draft letters reveal about his leadership style? Why was it important to him that ANC leaders not be his puppets? How did he inspire himself to overcome discouragement, even as Botha’s cruelty escalated?
6. How did you react to reading archival material? What is the benefit of seeing Mandela’s handwriting and unedited words, written for a variety of audiences? What does an archive teach us that other forms of historical research cannot? Are diaries and notebooks more reliable than an interview transcript (the conversations with Richard Stengel, in this case) or a polished memoir?
7. Mandela’s writings allude to the history of South Africa’s complex, brutal Anglo-Boer wars, in which the English suppressed uprisings on the part of Dutch, German, Flemish, and French settlers (collectively known as Boers, the Dutch word for farmer). What sense of national identity did Mandela have in the aftermath of this history?
8. Mandela describes the effects of the proliferating apartheid laws during the 1940s and 1950s. From his point of view, what enabled the descendants of Europeans, who were in the minority in South Africa, to hold such power and apply such crushing legislation to those with African ancestry, who were in the majority? What social and psychological tactics did Mandela experience in the courtroom, at home, and in other facets of his life as the government attempted to subdue non-whites? How did these tactics ultimately lead to the National Party’s downfall?
9. Conversations with Myself captures the author’s vast knowledge of literature, particularly Greek tragedy (Antigone) and Shakespeare. How does Mandela bridge his love for European literary lions and his desire to preserve African cultural history? What does this say about the universal power of storytelling and literature?
10. What portraits of Mandela’s life as a husband and father emerge in Conversations with Myself? What transitions in his sense of self are reflected in his first marriage (to Evelyn Mase), his later marriage to Winnie, and eventually life without her? What did it take for him to sustain a relationship with his family despite being confined to a cell, even when they faced the death of the family’s youngest members?
11. The book’s project leader, Verne Harris, tells us in his introduction that the form of Conversations with Myself is “inspired most directly by Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.” What milestones are reflected in the book’s four-part structure: “Pastoral,” “Drama,” “Epic,” “Tragicomedy”?
12. Ultimately, what was Mandela fighting for, beyond the end of apartheid? Were the roots of racism in South Africa purely economic?
13. Does reading about Mandela’s experience as a political prisoner help you define human rights in a new way? What details of Mandela’s imprisonment will be the hardest for you to forget?
14. In many ways, Mandela’s international fame, leading to calls for businesses, universities, and other organizations around the world to divest from South Africa, helped lead F. W. de Klerk to free Mandela and end apartheid. What did you discover about Mandela’s fame while reading the names of his many visitors? What price has Mandela paid for being “imprisoned by fame” in the years after his release?
15. Discuss the significance of the book’s foreword. Does President Barack Obama echo former president Nelson Mandela, or does he represent a very new perspective on human rights in the twenty-first century?
Conversations With Myself
- Publication Date: October 11, 2010
- Hardcover: 480 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- ISBN-10: 0374128952
- ISBN-13: 9780374128951