Mandela Worried About Being a Living Icon

VIDEO: Verne Harris on what Nelson Mandela wanted to reveal in his autobiography.
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The public persona of Nelson Mandela is internationally known – activist, president, political icon.

But in his latest book, "Conversations with Myself," a new unprecedented, intimate picture emerges of the 92-year-old man who endured isolation in prison, heart-breaking divorce, and personal loss while balancing the demands of loving both his family and his political work.

South African archivist Verne Harris was allowed wide access to Mandela's personal notes, journal entries, letters and manuscripts – written over decades -- to compile "Conversations with Myself."

"The private Nelson Mandela is one we can all relate to," Harris said. "He's taken the stuff life has given him and he's worked with it, in ways that are often very simple."

Harris recently sat down with ABC News to discuss the new pictures of the leader that emerge from his latest work.

Mandela's First Marriage Falls Apart

While Mandela's relationship with second wife Winnie became known around the world, the leader opens up about his fist wife, Evelyn, in "Conversations with Myself."

"The breakdown of his first marriage, it was ugly," Harris told ABC News. Evelyn accused Mandela of hitting her and going after her with a hot poker.

The couple had four children together, but Mandela's life outside of the home and personal differences placed a wedge between the two.

"So at one level it's, Well, I've put my political work before my marriage and my family. I made that choice and Evelyn couldn't cope with that. But at another level it's a little murkier than that. You know?" Harris told ABC News.

"Evelyn became increasingly religious. I remember him once saying to me, 'Ah, the day I knew I couldn't keep going is when I came home and found the church in my house. And I had to chase them all out.'"

The couple divorced in 1958.

Life in Prison for Mandela

Before becoming president of a democratic South Africa in 1994 Mandela was held in several prisons throughout the country from 1964 to 1990. Numerous letters written from prison are shared in "Conversations with Myself," and in them Mandela gives glimpses into what his life was like without his freedom.

As part of his routine at the Robben Island prison, Mandela and other inmates were given tasks. "Sewing of bags, digging rock out of the lime quarry. It was pretty much meaningless labor," Harris explained.

For Mandela there were also times of isolation in solitary confinement. Mandela's opportunities to see loved ones were controlled and limited.

"A visit to a prisoner always has significance difficult to put into words," Mandela wrote in a letter penned in prison to friend Frieda Matthews on Feb. 25, 1987. "A visit from your beloved ones, from friends, and even from strangers is always an unforgettable occasion, when that frustrating monotony is broken and the entire world is literally ushered into the cell."

The Strain of Prison on Mandela's Family Life

Mandela married Winnie Madikizela in 1958 and the couple worked together in the anti-apartheid struggle with the African National Congress. Winnie also raised their children while Nelson was imprisoned. The distance that grew between them is crisply demonstrated in "Conversations with Myself."

"They were part of the same movement, same values, same commitment. And I think what he was beginning to realize there is that 'Her struggle, her personal journey in that broader struggle is a tougher one than mine. She's exposed to more than I am. She's paying a heavier price than I am,'" Harris shared with ABC News.

After Winnie was detained in 1969 and placed in solitary confinement for 17 months, Mandela wrote to his daughters Zeni and Zindzi.

In a note dated June 23, 1969 he penned: "Once again our beloved Mummy has been arrested and now she and Daddy are away in jail. My heart bleeds as I think of her sitting in some police cell far away from home, perhaps alone and without anybody to talk to, and with nothing to read. Twenty-four hours of the day longing for her little ones."

Harris said that passage from Mandela's writing showed what he was enduring.

"What emerges that is perhaps fresh is the level of pain that he was carrying while he was in prison as he saw her life from his perspective unraveling, and particularly the impact of her incarceration and torture," Harris said.

Mandela was in prison when his oldest son Thembi died in an accident. In a letter written from Robben Island Prison in July of 1969, Mandela appealed to the commanding officer writing, "I should be pleased if you would give me permission to proceed immediately,with or without escort, to the place where he will be laid to rest. If he will already have been buried by the time you receive this application, then I would ask that I be allowed to visit his grave for the purpose of 'laying the stone', the traditional ceremony reserved for those persons who miss the actual burial."

Mandela's request was denied.

"It froze his heart," Harris told ABC News. Mandela's mother had died only 10 months earlier and his plea to attend her funeral was also denied.

Mandela: Neither A Saint Nor An Icon

As Harris sifted through Mandela's taped conversations, unfinished manuscripts, scribbled notes, and carefully crafted letters for "Conversations with Myself," he noticed a personal discussion Mandela has with himself over the years – reconciling the "burden" of his public image.

"He is the chosen one. And it really started in a focused systematic way in the 1970s. He's imprisoned. The ANC decides to use him as a symbol of struggle -- the Free Mandela campaign, and so on. And he carries then a huge burden of responsibility. Everything he does, his private life impacts directly on that public representation," Harris said.

"This is a fallible human being aware of that fallibility and increasingly uncomfortable with the way in which that fallibility has been hidden publicly."

"We can all aspire to that. We can all relate to it. I don't think you can relate to the saint or the icon, the larger than life leader. But you can relate to this Nelson Mandela. And that's what we're hoping to share in the book."

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