frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela
husband & lover

Richard Stengel INTERVIEW EXCERPT

He 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.
... He has great, great regrets ... you ask any great man, any public man, "Do you have any regrets?" Invariably they say, "Oh, of course, I have no regrets, no regrets at all." You ask that to Nelson Mandela, and you're there for the afternoon. He has hundreds and hundreds of regrets. That's what makes him a big man, that he is able to have regrets. But the public figure acts like it's all perfect ...

Which of these hundreds and hundreds of regrets stood out in your mind?

... the regrets begin with his role in his own family, as a father, as a husband, and as a son. Whenever he talked about his mother, he used to choke up. He told that wonderful story about how when he brought his mother to Johannesburg for the first time... People were saying her son was a criminal, and the police were coming to her house. She couldn't understand it. He realized, "I have to begin my political lessons at home, with my mother." But he has great regrets about what happened to his mother. He has regrets what happened to his first marriage, his children by his first marriage, his very frosty relations with those kids. I think he has regrets ... so many regrets with what happened with Winnie, for all kinds of reasons. Not that he even blames himself, I don't think he does blame himself, nor should he in so many respects. But he has great regrets about what happened.

He has certain regrets even about whether it was all worthwhile. Whether as a man, to spend that many years in prison, even for what happened. I mean he is a man of great appetites. He loves life. He loves eating, he loves being in the sunshine, he loves holding babies. I mean he missed 27 years of holding babies. At the end of the day, I'm sure he sometimes asks himself, "Is that worth it? Was it worth it to miss 27 years of touching an infant, to do what I did?" I think he asks himself that question.

He loves women too.

And he loves women. I remember when we were working on the book, and there were some times when there was ... a woman who was around who would sit in on the interviews. And the interviews were 100% better. If the Lord had chosen differently and I could have worn a skirt, the book would have been a lot better. He loves talking to women. He likes flirting with women. He likes impressing women ... But he has a great, great natural love of women. In fact, I remember when I was first getting ready to set up the interviews, and was talking with Barbara Masekela, his assistant, and she said to me, almost apropos of nothing, "He loves women. And you know, not every man does."

... During the period when he is engaged in very serious talks [with the government] ... he was starting to hear about Winnie and the football club and so forth ... he must have been going through absolute hell there. And to use a term used a lot with Bill Clinton, he compartmentalized completely into airtight shutters.

But again ... it was the acting, it was the ability to be scared but not show it. The ability to be wounded but not show it. I remember once we were walking in the Transkei, and I don't know what started this. He asked me whether I believed in love at first sight. And ... I said, "I don't know." ... I have been wondering what the right answer would be, ... and he said, "Oh I do. You can fall in love at first sight, but it may not even come to pass for years afterwards." And he has this ... it's sort of fashionable in a way to not say that he's a sentimental man, or an emotional man. But I think he is in this profound almost sappy way, and he was sappy about Winnie. You cannot read those letters that he wrote to her from prison, they're ... some of the greatest love letters ever written as far as I'm concerned. They go with Robert Browning and what have you. In fact, they have that same Victorian sensibility, which is the kind of love that he understood.

And when I asked him about those letters ... because this was at a time that he still pained by what happened with Winnie, and he said, "Oh, you know, Richard, I was just trying to buck her spirits up, to make her not lose hope."

Those are not the letters of a man trying to buck his wife up. Those are the letters of a man who had this electric relationship with a woman that he really missed. A man who loved women in general and loved this woman in particular.

But, about this capacity to compartmentalize. On the one hand he must have been going through a helluva time. And on the other hand, there he was handling these weighty affairs of state.

But I'll tell you, it's a lot easier to compartmentalize in prison than it is in the outside world ... He was deeply wounded by this, but I think just as he's always made the choice of what's more important--my life as a man, Nelson Mandela, or my life as a revolutionary, as a leader of this movement. He always chose the latter. He was hurt by what was going on with Winnie, but I mean he knew where his strength and sensibilities had to go. That this was a diversion. This was a minor thing. This was some people trying to hurt him. He just couldn't give in to it at all. If he gave into it, that would go against everything that he had lived for. He had to sublimate that. That's the risk that he knew that he took. When he was the Black Pimpernel, did he think, "I am going to be living under one roof as man and wife with this woman whom I love for the rest of my life." He knew he wouldn't be. He had factored that in, and as painful as it was, he knew it was something that he would have to live with, and in a strange way, he was prepared for it.

So there was no way that the pain of the unfolding Winnie drama was going to subvert his central quest.

No. I mean there was no Edward VII--"I renounce my crown for the woman I love." He would not have renounced the struggle for the woman he loved, under any circumstances. He was a great lover of this woman in particular.

... We have talked to a number of people about the separation ...

I was not there at that time.

It was an amazingly poignant event ....

What he hated about that and what he hated about Winnie, is that she forced him to show emotion in public in a way that he never wanted to. That's what he hated. He hated that he had to give, at that press conference and say, at the end, after he read his prepared statement, "Gentlemen, I hope you appreciate what I am going through." That woman forced him to say that ... a man who'd never shown self-pity in public, although a man who feels self-pity in private. A man who realized I will never show this in public--had to show it. She forced him to do that. He hated that.

I remember precisely what he said was, "Ladies and gentlemen - I hope you will appreciate how painful this is to me. And I would appreciate it if we could have no questions."

Right. But the fact that he had to say that ...

Do you think that that momentary exposure of his vulnerability actually afforded him more pain at that moment than the actual fact of the separation itself? Is that what you're saying?

No. I don't think that. At the risk of sounding cynical--again the great actor that he is--he milked that moment a little bit, for some sympathy. He hated it. He didn't like doing it, but I think that he realized that, at some level, because he is a master of public relations, this would engender some sympathy for him and for the cause. No, he's thinking about Winnie in a political context also. It's not just a man and a wife thing. It's ... "Is this woman going to represent the movement? This woman who is out of control. Who is animated by vengeance. Is she going to be the face of the ANC?" He couldn't allow that to happen either. That was part of his calculation.

You anticipated entirely the point I want to make. A number of people that we've talked to have spoken of that separation in terms of partly a political calculation. It wasn't entirely a husband-breaks-up-with-wife number.

Right.

Can you develop that thought.

Yes. One of my regrets in working with him on the book, and being so intimate with him for such a long time, yet being outside of the inner circle. There were moments when he was sitting in a room with Walter and Kathy and ... Thabo maybe, I don't know who. Where they're discussing this issue, in the most coldly, calculating, political manner, "Madiba, if you separate from Winnie, how will that affect our standing here?" They're talking about it. They are masters. They are political masters.

I mean, he, Mandela, is naive about a lot of things, innocent about a lot of things, and ordinary about a lot of his perceptions, but when it comes to politics, he is a laser beam genius. So he's sitting in there, and he's a wounded man. But he is thinking ... he is doing the political calculation, and he's doing it at a level of subtlety that is hard to imagine. They all are. They are hard, hard men. Even in an area that's that delicate, and the historians would love to be in that room, because that's where history was made when they figured how to do that. And he again sublimated his personal pain to what was right for the movement, what was right for the country, what was right for the ANC. And that was what was right.

And it was a useful channel for that pain. Because in fact what you are describing there is so similar to what Neville Alexander described, when they were putting notes in his bed about ... the newspaper clippings about ... how Winnie was engaged in an adulterous relationship. And how he would call them in, and they would have political meetings about this.

Right. In a strange way, those men ... as intimate as their lives were, they never talked intimately. They were not 'new age' men in the way that we would use that term. I mean, so far from it. They were 19th century men and their intimacy was from this shared struggle. But there was never any talk about anything. There was that very, very sad moment, when Nelson Mandela was in prison, and he got word that his eldest and first-born son was killed in a car crash. They gave him a telegram, and he went back to his cell, and he sat there by himself. He didn't go to confide in anyone or to embrace anybody. He sat there by himself and finally Walter went in there, and as Walter told me the story, they just sat silently there. I think they held hands. But that was it. There wasn't any of this let-your-hair-down kind of stuff.

Walter spoke to us about this. What he said was that actually he was quite distraught himself ...

Right.

And ... he spoke in admiration of Mandela's control...

Right.

What did it for Nelson, as far as Winnie was concerned? Was it discovering the adulterous relationship? Was he willfully turning a blind eye to a lot of it for a long time, and then suddenly the evidence reached critical mass, and he couldn't do that anymore? Why he separated ...

Again, I wasn't intimate with him at that time, but my observation, which is probably gleaned, is that it was entirely a political calculation ... there were all those stories about her coming home drunk with ... what's his name and all that. And that was a tremendous indignity, he hated it, but I mean the way he did the separation--it was an entirely political thing. That's why that final afterward, that impromptu afterward, "I hope you will appreciate how painful this is for me." Even that was a political calculation. He added it as an addendum, but what it did was it finally humanized something that was actually a cold political calculation. Of course, the press and everyone saw it as a human thing, not as a political thing. In part because he said that.

Do you think you are maybe underplaying a little bit the element of personal pain?

Well, he had the personal pain, but again I don't think that ... he didn't channel it with the guise, that wasn't part of the general calculation. He knew what role it played in his own life, but I don't think he ever said to Walter, "Walter, I can't take it anymore." That never happened, I don't think. I am not saying he didn't feel it. I am just saying it wasn't part of the discourse.

If everything here was political, what would be your assessment of his loyalty to her during that whole trial, the whole Stompie business? Was he turning a blind eye ... was there an element of a sort of personal shield?

Yes. I think there was an element of personal loyalty. One of the things he would always say to me and I really think it was genuine. And remember, we were talking when they were estranged already. But he say, "What Winnie went through was much worse than what I went through." He's said that over and over again. I really believed it. I really believe he felt that.

In a strange way, as I was saying, Robben Island was a kind of insulated place. She was never insulated from this stuff. He was mindful and felt terribly, terribly guilty about putting her through what she went through. He felt, "I am responsible for this. She's in solitary confinement for a year and a half. Why? I married her. She is separated from her children, for you know, months on end. Why? I married her." So he felt a lot of good old-fashioned guilt about that, and the way he stood with her through the trial was partially out of that. Partially out of the fact, "I owe it to her. I cannot be seen to betray her. Loyalty is an important thing to me." But I think at a certain level, he couldn't not do that. And George Bizos has talked about that ... that he even felt that Nelson shouldn't be so loyal, but there he just had to be.

This idea that has been floated around from time to time about Winnie as a kind of alter ego to Mandela--she's Lady Macbeth. He's the virtuous Macduff. ... Any thoughts on this sort of pleasing classical order one would like to impose on the couple.

He had no idea of what she would become when he met her. The old psychological [saying] about the same fire that hardens the egg melts the butter--that fire hardened him, and she cracked. Not everybody can live through and survive and become stronger. And she didn't, any normal person couldn't have survived it intact, and she did not.

When he first saw this young nurse at Baragwanath Hospital, he wasn't thinking "will she be the right kind of woman for the leader of a mass movement?" He was thinking, what a beautiful, vivacious, young woman. He loves vibrant, emotional, strong, powerful women. That's what Winnie is. That's the kind of woman he's attracted to, and who knows what's going to happen to them? So I don't think that he saw or was attracted to a dark side. He was a man in love, and he was much more thinking about the pain that he was going to cause her, rather than how she would react to it. In fact, for the longest time she reacted to it heroically. Incredibly heroically. And then not.

Do you think it's fair to describe her as his alter ego? He's the negotiator, the conflict resolver. She's the "let's take 'em on, exterminate the brutes ..."

We can impose our conception of the way marriage is on them. They were not--and this is just my opinion--intimate in the modern way of men and women. I don't think they talked about these things in great detail. He had a very old-fashioned view of women as subordinate and the men as dominant. And he, as revolutionary as he was, never got over that. So I don't think that she was his alter ego in that way, and insofar as she was, it was something that he imagined.

Those letters create a picture of a Winnie that we've never really seen. Maybe she existed in reality and maybe she just existed in Nelson's mind. I don't know. Maybe she was this beautiful ideal. There's that wonderful line about the sonneteer must be as in love with the form of the sonnet as the form of his love. Nelson was in love with the form even of his own love for Winnie. And of those letters ... he agonized over those letters.

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