Richard Stengel INTERVIEW xcerptHe collaborated with Mandela on his autobiography Long Walk To Freedom. He is Senior Editor at Time Magazine and, in addition to the Mandela book, is author of January Sun: One Day, Three Lives, a South African Town
You spent quite a lot of time with Mandela in the Transkei. Were there any
reflections that you made about his Transkei existence, his tribal existence,
and how it helps illuminate our understanding of Mandela?|
He wouldn't have breakfast. He would leave his house at 5:30, surrounded by these body guards, and it was quite cool in the morning in Transkei, and he would pick a direction to go from his house there, that he remembered from when he was a boy. And he would follow those paths, and we would always come within about a half and hour to some tiny little village. And this was the most remote place on earth, and at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning he would knock on the doors of these rondavels and say good morning.
And what was amazing to me, was that almost half the time, the people didn't know who he was. They thought he was some visiting chief, maybe. I remember one morning he got this lady up, woke her up, and she started bawling him out in Xhosa. And then suddenly a little light went off in her head, and she said, "Oh, you're the man in the newspaper." It really was extraordinary. People didn't know who Nelson Mandela was, and he reveled in the fact that they didn't know who he was.
And this was his way of investigative reporting almost ... he wanted to know how the people were living. And this was enormously instructive for him. And at the same time, it helped him keep this kind of chiefly role that he felt he had over the area around his house, where he was born. It was enormously instructive about him. ... he'd give a speech somewhere at some little village, and no one spoke English there. He spoke in Xhosa. Nelson has a wonderful sense of humor in English, but when he was speaking to the people in Xhosa, it was as though there was a comedian up there. They were laughing. They were rolling in the aisles just all the time, and I always thought there is a different personality that he has speaking in Xhosa than speaking in English. He's much more sort of proper in English. He's much more kind of 19th century English gentleman in English, because of course that's the English he really learned ...
... You also saw him in action in Johannesburg, presumably during the time of the negotiations with the government. Is there some way of making any observations about the connection between what he brought from that chiefly, tribal environment, that he then used, or in some way expressed itself in the modern environment?
Yes ... we talked a little bit about this in the book. He talked about when he first went to Mqhekezweni, which was the chiefly area after his father died, where he was in effect adopted by the king. He talks about listening to the elders there, and as a young man, as a boy, he really was quite shy. He was a little bit self conscious, and he wasn't very talkative. He really listened. And one of the things that he absorbed there was this ability of the chief to listen to what everybody had to say. The chief didn't speak until everybody had had their say, and then he sort of weighed that.
One of the things that was reflected in the negotiations, is that Mandela didn't weigh in with his opinion until everybody had spoken, and that gave him a great deal of leverage. In some ways, he's a very impatient man, but in negotiations, in politics, he's enormously patient and part of that comes from his upbringing as a boy and seeing how the chief listened to what everyone had to say. In negotiations ... that gave him some leverage, gave him some power, because his opinion remained a mystery until the last. It seemed more forceful because he had held it in abeyance until then.
His regal quality, this self-control that you see in him--are there any connections there with the chiefly role, how the chief is expected to behave?
When I first started working with Mandela on the book, people around him would always say to me, "You must remember that he was groomed to be chief." What I discovered is that that was a tiny bit of a misnomer. His father was an appointed chief. He wasn't a blood chief. And, in fact, Nelson wouldn't have become a chief, because he wasn't in a direct line of succession, because his mother was the wrong wife for the succession. So he wasn't really a chief in the way that people think, but he was from a family that would be a kind of aristocratic, upper-middle-class family. And when he moved to the king's village, he was able to observe this.
But there was a kind of natural "aristocratic-ness" about him, a kind of natural princeliness, and part of that jarred with him when he saw real royalty, and he observed them. He observed the way they walk, the way they carry themselves, what they dressed like, what they wore. Even his fabulous posture comes from as a little boy observing the way the king stood. In a way, he was a natural king ...
... I wonder if one could say that it was because he knew he wasn't entirely of that lineage, that he perhaps strained that much harder. It was a fairly natural human instinct to be all the more regal in his bearing and so forth ... would that be a sort of valid thing to say?
I think that is a valid thing to say. He, what is that French expression [plus royaliste que le roi]--more royal than the king, more kingly than the king. He epitomized that a little bit himself, because he thought, "I can be an amalgam of this. I have some royal blood and I can be more kingly than the king in just the way that I am."
And he saw this and it appealed to him in a way. In fact, one of the things that happened when he went to Johannesburg for the first time after being treated with great deference where he grew up--it bothered him. It put a chip on his shoulder. He hates indignity of any kind and suddenly he is confronted with indignity everywhere he went. It gave him a kind of ... some poets have a lover's quarrel with the world. It gave him a quarrel with the world, with the way the world was in South Africa, with apartheid, because it treated him with indignity at every turn. And he loathed that, it really rubbed something wrong inside of him.
One thing that we have tried to identify is the motor that drove him through his life's quest. The spur. To some degree, would that be part of the answer, this sense of his own dignity having been offended and wanted to sort of put that to rights?
I think that's right. I have often thought to myself, and having been with him in so many private moments, and seen what he's like in these intimate moments, had he grown up in a utopia, not that any of us do, he would have been quite happy to be a small town lawyer, and have a family and farm, maybe. There was no burning ambition in him to be a great leader, unless it was necessary for him to become a great leader ...
What made him a great man was the fact that his dignity was offended. That when he went out into the larger world, it didn't jibe with his own conception of himself, and he realized, "If I feel so deeply spurned, and everything is so deeply unfair to me, think how it must be for all these other people, who are not as able to withstand it as I am." And that was the motor, that was the trigger. Because I don't think he is a naturally reflective or introspective man ...
... It is a feeling of responsibility that you are describing there, which perhaps brings us back to the idea of the chief of the aristocracy, being responsible for his people. Maybe that kicked in at that point.
One never knows what drives people to do this sort of thing. I mean one of the things that he even recalls, and he said to me that it was a terrible moment in his young adult life when he had these small children and when they were in Soweto, and he would leave every night or be gone for long periods of time. And they'd go, "Daddy why aren't you here. I miss you. I am lonely." He'd have to say these terrible tragic words which were, "Well, there are other children out there, and they are lonely and sad, and they don't have their father either, and I have to think of them."
What is it that makes a man say that to his child, as opposed to another person who says, "I can't leave my child?" And what drove him to feel that? ... well, it's a little bit what we were talking about in terms of his amour-propre, of his dignity being offended. But it was a slow, slow process. It took a long time for him to move from a person who himself felt offended, to a person who is going to take up the cudgels for everyone else who feels offended.
A number of people have told us that in those early days ... a 20-year period, from his arrival in Johannesburg to Rivonia ... that he was initially a bit of a country bumpkin, "rustic-ish" is one of the words that we hear. "Country-ish," said one lady in Soweto. Others have told us that actually he was just one helluva dandy. Where do you fall on this or was it in fact an evolution from one to the other? ...
One of the things I have discovered about Nelson Mandela is that all statements about him worked both ways. Every positive statement has its negative, every negative statement has its positive. He was a country bumpkin, and he was a dandy. He tells these lovely stories about when he first came to Johannesburg and he was incredibly naive ... he had one pair of trousers, and he just kept getting it patched and patched and patched, and he was just so embarrassed to actually talk to a girl that he might be attracted to, because he was wearing these horrible hand-me-down clothes.
He tells that lovely story about ordering a piece of meat for the first time in a butcher, which he had never done before, and bringing it home to this little shanty that he was staying in and asking the young girl there to cook it. And she looked at it and laughed, and he said, "Why are you laughing?" And she said, "It already is cooked." He didn't know you could even buy cooked meat before. So he was a country bumpkin. But one of the things that happened to him in the city, in the same way that happened to him in the royal village, is in the royal village he looked at the king and realized this is who I empathize with. He looked at the way men of the world dressed and he thought, "Ah, that's the way I want to be."
There is that lovely picture of him just when he first came to Johannesburg and he is wearing this beautiful double-breasted peaked lapel suit that looked like it was handmade for him, and probably was. George Bizos, his long time lawyer tells a lovely story about seeing Nelson Mandela for the first time in this little Indian tailor shop, that he, George, used to go to, getting fitted for a suit. He said, "I had never seen a black man in there before, much less being fitted for a suit, and of course he looked like a model for these suits." So he became a bit of a dandy. He's a vain man. He knows he's a handsome man. He knows the image that he cuts. He likes fine things. He's incredibly neat about his things, and cares for them. That was the dandy side of him ...
He is a flatterer, isn't he? Tell me about that. It's a technique that he has. I guess on one level it is probably entirely natural, but on the other hand he clearly uses it as a method of disarming...
Well, again, it's like everything is both ways with him. It's genuine and it's calculated. So that I'd seen him do things where he'd run into a journalist that he hadn't seen in a long time, and he'd run up to him and say, "Joe, remember me?" and there was something honest about it. He has this combination of great self assurance and some insecurity, which comes from when he was a little boy and when he first went to Johannesburg. So these two things work together. He knows how blandishments ... because in fact he is incredibly susceptible to flattery and compliments himself. It's a kind of unerring missile into him, to flatter him, because it confirms in a way his sense of self-esteem. So he's a master of using it and he is also disarmed by it at the same time.
You say that he has this insecurity. Can you give any other examples to illustrate that point?
I think he, in a strange way, is a kind of hero worshipper ... he even talked about as a small boy, when he was in Qunu, and I remember he told me a story once when we were walking in the hills around the town, and he said this is where the white shop was. And he told a story about when he had come there one day to buy something for his father, and he said to me "Oh, the white man, the white shopkeeper was like a god to me." Can you imagine hearing Nelson Mandela say that some poor white shopkeeper in the Transkei was like a god to him? But he was being genuine. The insecurity comes from those days. And no one ... not even a god, can not have insecurity raised in that circumstance, where you are automatically treated as something lower than low. So his curious mixture of self-esteem and self-confidence is balanced by some insecurity.
Something that you mentioned before ... that in another life Mandela would have been chairman of an English 19th century gentlemen's club.
Talk to me about that side, that English gentleman persona.
Yes, someone once said about him that he is a combination of an African aristocrat and an English gentleman. I think the English gentleman was the beau idéal for him that he had learned as a child, that he had learned from school, and in a strange way because he lived in this bifurcated world--a black world and a white world. In the white world, he was an English gentleman. That was the way to be. That was the best way for an African to be.
And in the African world, he was a chief, which isn't that different than being an English gentleman, but you wear a different costume, you speak in a different way and so his Englishness comes from his sense of this is the way a man of the world, in the wider world, in the white world, has to behave. And he is a perfect gentleman.
synopsis + anecdotes + chronology + discussion + map
tapes & transcripts + press + site map + viewers & teachers' guide
frontline + pbs online + wgbh
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation