A Journalist's Perspective on South Africa

Nelson Mandela Release

A high point of Endgame is when South African president F.W. De Klerk makes the surprise announcement in 1990 that Nelson Mandela is going to be released from prison after serving for 27 years.

I was at home in Manhattan when Jacqui Farmer, my producer, called, shouting into the phone for me to turn on the television. Within a few days, I was interviewing Mandela in the black township of Soweto.

Mandela later wrote about how unprepared he was for the kind of questions he was being asked by journalists, especially about his feelings. He had been in prison for 27 years and had not been exposed to journalists asking any questions at all, let alone questions of a personal nature.

And yet I found him handling all the attention with great ease. When I entered the small backyard of his home, where the interviews were taking place, I walked over and introduced myself to him. It wasn't my time to interview him, but I wanted to make my presence known. I was surprised by how tall he was, but also by how relaxed and warm he was. He greeted me with a smile and a handshake, and from that moment on, I didn't let him out of my sight, yet he didn't seem to mind my presence. I was amazed by his patience as he sat through a series of 10-minute interviews for several hours.

As we were waiting for the cameras to roll, I made small talk, trying to relax him (and myself, for that matter, given that this was the interview of my life, and I was one of only two journalists given 30 minutes to interview him). I was telling him about my civil rights background, which made him smile, after which he asked me if I knew Maya Angelou. When I said I did, he told me that he had read all her works in prison. With all the world wanting to know what was on his mind, I made a mental note to call Maya and give her this news as soon as I got back to the States.

Though descended from royalty, Mandela was a modest man, and once a free man, he always publicly spoke of the ANC as a collective and an organization in which positions were taken collectively. I remember asking him during that interview whether he saw himself becoming president of South Africa one day. He responded that he was a loyal member of the ANC and would defer to its judgment and leadership — although he did initiate his own talks with the regime while still in prison and without the knowledge of the ANC.

Next > Other Factors That Led to Apartheid's Downfall

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