“Mandela’s Last Years”, written by retired military doctor Vejay Ramlakan, has become a sought after commodity since the publisher, Penguin SA, withdrew it from the shelves in July. Ramlakan was the head of the medical team that looked after Nelson Mandela until his death in 2013.
The withdrawing and pulping of a book represents a huge expense for a publisher, as well as a source of some embarrassment. So why did the publisher do it?
Soon after the book was published, members of the Mandela family, led by his widow Graça Machel, threatened legal action. It must be admitted that the basis for any legal action wasn’t clear, although it was probably linked to defamation. The book, Machel argued, constituted “an assault on the trust and dignity” of her late husband.
Soon afterwards, the author’s employer, the South African National Defence Force, distanced itself from the book, suggesting that it may have contravened doctor-patient confidentiality.
The publisher bowed to this pressure and withdrew the book, stating that no further copies would be issued out of respect for the family. This is almost unprecedented, anywhere, and needs to be teased out more fully. After reading the book, I’ve considered how and why the publisher may have come to this decision.
Reasons for pulping a book
The decision making process for a publisher in a case like the Mandela book revolves around balancing the potential costs against reputational damage. The costs can be extensive – in publishing, all costs relating to editing, design, production, printing and distribution are made up front. It is relatively easy to make a decision to withdraw a book after publication when it may have contravened the law, mostly due to defamation of character.
Books may also be withdrawn after allegations of plagiarism, or because the accuracy of the content has been called into question. Publishers sometimes cancel contracts with their authors based on the standard waivers dealing with defamation and inaccuracies.
Publishers try to avoid these kinds of situations by performing due diligence to see if manuscripts contain anything defamatory or that breaches privacy. They employ fact checkers to avoid inaccuracy. And they require authors to warrant that their work is original and accurate.
This doesn’t mean that errors don’t sometimes slip through. But it is very unusual for a book to be withdrawn simply because it’s controversial. In fact, publishers usually support controversial titles because they create publicity, and publicity generally leads to sales.
So what happened in this particular case?
The first set of questions would relate to the credibility of the author, and the publisher’s relationship with him. Ramlakan was the head of Mandela’s medical team and had unique access to the former president over a long period of time. This means that he certainly had the access and authority to write the book, and as far as I know nobody is questioning its accuracy.
This is important, because truthfulness is one of the main defences against defamation, as is the issue of public benefit or interest. It seems highly unlikely that a publisher would allow a nonfiction title to include material that is patently untrue or that would harm the reputation of a man like Mandela. Is there really still a need to protect the reputation of a man of such global stature?
Linked to the question of authority is whether the work was authorised. The author has repeatedly claimed he wrote the memoir at the request of family members, and with their permission. In such a large family, it would be difficult to obtain permission from every family member, and it is quite common for family members to protest their treatment in a biography of a famous public figure.
Family members often argue that there has been a breach of privacy or that embarrassing private details have been made public. But the truth is that their authorisation is not actually necessary. Many authors write unauthorised biographies or memoirs, and while they may prove controversial, they certainly do not contravene the law. The broad variety of books already available on Mandela shows that there is ongoing public interest. It seems unlikely that each one of them was authorised by the family.
What complicates this scenario is that, as a medical doctor, Ramlakan is also expected to uphold ethical standards that an ordinary writer wouldn’t be subject to. I am not an expert in medical ethics, but there are very few medical details in the book that are not already in the public domain.
In fact, one of the purposes of the book was to counter the rumours and speculation around Mandela’s medical condition in the last years and months of his life. It does this by quietly countering inaccurate statements and setting out the bare facts. It appears that the author made a deliberate effort to avoid breaching confidentiality, and ended up writing a very respectful book.
Some have suggested that the publisher and author were simply attempting to cash in on the Mandela legacy. Whatever their motives, they shouldn’t be the basis for withdrawing a book from public circulation. Taste and motivation are not legal issues.
Given that there is no apparent material basis for a legal attack on the book, its withdrawal reveals self-censorship on the part of the publisher. South Africa no longer has censorship laws in place, but an influential family can bring pressure to bear that amounts to the same thing. But also given that the book was already on the market, it should be asked what the effect of the withdrawal will be.
While fewer copies will be sold in bookshops, and fewer people will have access to it, it’s not possible to entirely withdraw a book from the online market. The book reviews already mention all of the most controversial parts of the book, and the action of withdrawal only serves to highlight them. The best course of action would be to allow the book to circulate freely and to stand – or fall – on its own merits. Anything else is censorship.