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Withdrawal of Mandela book was nothing short of censorship

“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Books may also be withdrawn after allegations of plagiarism, or because the accuracy of the content has been called into question.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.

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