Publishers have pulled a book claiming Nelson Mandela was holding his ex-wife’s hand when he died

A new battle over his final moments.
A new battle over his final moments.
Image: AP Photo/Alexander Joe
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A new book has thrust the heavily scrutinized last moments of Nelson Mandela’s life back into the spotlight.

On July 18 Penguin Random House South Africa released Mandela’s Last Days, by retired military doctor Vejay Ramlakan. Just a week later, the publisher pulled the book from shelves “out of respect for the late Mr. Mandela’s family.” Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, had expressed her displeasure with it.

Mandela had lung problems until he died in 2013, and Ramlakan was the head of his medical team. In Mandela’s Last Days, he writes that Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was the one holding his hand in the hospital when the anti-apartheid leader and Nobel laureate passed away. The BBC reports that this is one passage Machel has criticized.

“The book was meant to portray Nelson Mandela’s courage and strength until the very end of his life, and was in no way intended to be disrespectful,” says the publisher in a statement. “However, given the statements from family members, we have decided to withdraw the book.”

A Sunday Times review of the book says that it revealed tension between Mandela’s doctors and staff, and that Mandela told one of his doctors that he was “sad and somewhat depressed.”

Ramlakan told his publisher that he had permission from Mandela’s family for the medical tell-all, and said in an interview Sunday that in fact the family requested he write it. But Machel is far from happy with the book.

“I condemn Vejay Ramlakan’s book Mandela’s Last Years in the strongest terms,” Machel said in a statement to Times Live, adding, “It breaches the doctor–patient relationship of confidentiality.” Machel said she was consulting lawyers on whether to sue the author and publisher.

It’s unusual for a publisher to pull a book they’ve paid for, printed, and publicized, and even more so after the book has already been released. Notably, the publisher said the book was pulled out of respect for the family, and not because the editors think that Ramlakan was lying. The publisher declined to comment on whether the manuscript had been fact-checked.