interview: Richard Stengel continued
Do you share the view ... that almost from the beginning of his time on Robben Island, he was preparing to joust with the enemy, if you like, on the level of negotiations.
Again, like I was saying about him before, that every normative statement has its opposite. I think ... yes and no. He was living one day at a time in one way, and he was thinking, "How do I, as a man, as a human being, get through this?" And there was the living one day at a time. There was also the, "I am thinking far ahead. I plan far ahead."
One side of maturity, one thing that he learned in prison, was you set your sights in the far distance, and he did. I am not sure that he was conscious of it in the very beginning. But fairly soon he was when he decided to learn Afrikaans, when he decided that he needed to have some kind of relationship with those guards. In a strange way, he realized, and it may be even unconsciously that the relationship between him and his Afrikaans guards, was a microcosm for the whole South African experience. If he could somehow come to some modus vivendi with his guards, then he could maybe bring South Africa to the promised land. So he realized that and it's the same--the personal becomes the political with him as a theme that's been throughout his entire life.
Explain that a bit more to me.
Well, what we've been talking about--the kind of lover's quarrel that he had with the world. The genius, in a strange way, of Nelson Mandela is that he was able to transfer the personal to the political. We ordinary folk might feel personally angry, aggrieved if somebody does something to us, don't think about it in a larger context. He managed to, at some point, think about it all in a larger context. Not take it personally. Even though he so often was personally offended and harbors a tremendous amount of bitterness, which he has managed to shield and protect. But he didn't, at the end of the day, take it personally. He realized it wasn't directed at me personally. If it is directed at me personally, think how much worse it is for everybody else.
You say he harbors a tremendous amount of bitterness, which goes sort of entirely contrary to the [image] about Mandela. Can you expand on this? ...
One of the things he realized in prison, certainly towards the end, when the view of what the future might hold was getting closer, he realized that if the country was going to work in any way, there had to be a reconciliation between white and black. If he was going to be the mass leader, he had to spearhead that reconciliation, and the way to do that was to embrace his enemy. Even as a leader, I have always thought he embodied that wonderful Mafia dictum that goes: Keep your friends close, but hug your enemies even closer. He is a genius at that. The people that really are threatening to him, he puts his arm around and embraces, and acts as though they're brothers, bonded for life. Because you can't stab someone from ... in close, in a way. That's almost what he realized about dealing with whites. That he had to be the symbol of reconciliation. And he had to say, let bygones be bygones. Let's forget the past.
Here to me is a man--and I spent so many hours with him, thinking about the past--a man who cannot forget the past. A man who is suffused with the past, saying forget the past. That was, in a way, his greatest acting moment. He is haunted by the past, but he knows that if South Africa can move into the future, people have to forget the past. He has tremendous, tremendous bitterness about the way he was treated in all kinds of ways, but his great achievement as a leader, is the ability to hide that bitterness. To show the smiling face of reconciliation, not the frown of bitterness and lost opportunity.
But he has great, great regrets ... you ask any great man, any public man, "Do you have any regrets." As a journalist that's happened to me. 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 stood out in your mind or things that he might have conveyed to you?
Well, this takes us to another chapter in a way ... but speaking of his regrets ... he has many, many regrets and 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, and he realized that she hadn't been politically educated. 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 someone ... 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 ... 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."
You said you wanted to go back to Robben Island ... Among the many indignities that he suffered there, was there one that he implied to you that he felt most keenly?
One of the secrets about Robben Island in a way is that it was this protected community. The great, great mistake, if on the Machiavellian point of view, that the government made, was to keep these Rivonia trialists together. They sustained each other. They kept up each other's confidence. The bolstered each other. Had they separated those men and put them in far-flung prisons around South Africa, history might be very different.
In a strange way, Robben Island was protected. Walter Sisulu has this lovely line that he used to say when he gave speeches when he first came out of prison, he'd say, "I haven't had a good night's sleep since I left prison." Well, they slept very well in prison. They were just by themselves. They were protected. The government was so scared of what might happen to them that they were treated specially. Nelson Mandela was never physically attacked in all the years he was in prison. He spent a total of about a week in solitary confinement--all those years in prison. Winnie Mandela spent a year and a half in solitary confinement. She was beaten. Normal guys who rob a bank are beaten and kept in solitary confinement.
Nelson Mandela didn't have it easy by any human stretch of the imagination, but in some ways he had it a little bit easier than other people in South African jails. So Robben Island nourished him and they nourished each other. The "university" as they loved to call Robben Island, I mean they were having seminars all day long, discussing whether the tiger is indigenous to Africa, whether the communist party ... and the ANC are one. It was like a master's thesis going on there.
Can we talk about the secret talks--Kobie Coetsee and Niel Barnard ...?
One of the things that Robben Island taught him in a way that he hadn't learned in the outside world, is that if he maintained his dignity, if he insisted they are treated the way a man should be treated, and he could bend the authorities on Robben Island to his will, which he did. Then he thought, "Mmm, this can work in the outside world. These are the most unrepentant racists in the world, and if they can treat me with dignity, and be taught to treat me with dignity," as he did teach them, then he realized he could do it in a larger way. Again it's the same ... the personal becoming political., then he realized he could do it in a larger way. Again it's the same ... the personal becoming political. The personal relationship with his jailers--he could recapitulate in the wider world.
And in prison there were people who felt that, particularly later as the talks began, that he was a sell-out. That ... he was constantly, in later years, having talks. Even before the big talks began, he was having talks with jailers about whether they would have soup for dinner, and what kind of shoes they would have, and what kind of books they could have. One of the reasons the negotiations began is that he was so much in the habit of negotiating with the jailers, but about all this minutia, not about the new dispensation, but about whether they could have books with the word "war" in the title, and all of these silly things that he was talking to them about. He got used to negotiating with the Afrikaner through all of these years of these small petty negotiations, which he did all along, and became a genius.
You were saying that he instructed his Afrikaner jailers to view him ... to treat him with dignity. What do you think is the secret of that?
In a strange way, and I know it sounds like a fortune cookie explanation, but
if you refuse to be treated with indignity, you teach people how to treat you
with dignity. He never bent. He never groveled. He always walked upright ...
when I interviewed the people who'd been on the island with him, and they'd
talk about how just seeing him walk across the courtyard, with that great
posture, was inspiring to them ... it bucked them up. He is a great actor in
... he has the virtue of his flaws, and his flaws were exactly the right flaws for that time--of being too trusting, of seeing the glasses half-full. That's what South Africa needed at that time. The man who'd been the leader of the underground movement, the firebrand who actually is too trusting, who errs on the side of thinking we are men of goodwill...There's a story, it's not related to prison, but I am going to tell it anyway. We were once on this airplane flight down in Natal, and it was a prop plane. I think there were six seats in it, and there were maybe four of us on the plane. And as soon as he gets on an airplane he picks up a newspaper. He adores newspapers. He didn't have them for so many years and he revels in the touch of them, and he reads every stupid story. And so we were sitting on the airplane, the plane was up, and he is reading his newspaper, and we're about, I don't know, halfway there ... I was sitting right across from him, and he pointed out the window ... and I saw, to my great horror, that the propeller had stopped going around. And he said very, very calmly, "Richard, you might want to inform the pilot that the propeller isn't working." I said, "Yes, Madiba." I walked to the front of the plane, and the pilot was well aware of it and he said, "Go back and sit down. We've called the airport. They have the ambulances out there, and they're going to coat the runway with foam or whatever they do."
I went back and I told Madiba that, and he just, in that very solemn way, mouth sort of down, listened, and said, "Yes." And then picked up his newspaper and started reading. I was terrified, and the way I calmed myself was I looked at him. And he was as calm as could be. Like the prisoners on Robben Island must have looked at him when they felt scared, and he just looked as calm as could be.
The plane landed, no problem. He never changed his expression or anything like that. He put his newspaper down, and we came into the airport, and as we got into the airport and we sort of had a moment alone, he turned to me and he said, "Man, I was scared up there." It was such a revelation because that's what courage is. Courage is not, not being scared. Courage is being terrified and not showing it. So I was enheartened. I was given courage by looking at him, because he was pretending not to be scared, and that's what he did for his whole life. The more you pretend that you're not scared, the more not scared you become. The more you inhabit that role, and that's what happened in Robben Island.
Which has to be part of the secret of why he is such a great leader ... that's a leader, isn't it?
Absolutely. Yes, that's it. I mean, that's what is a military hero, a great hero in war. Is it a man who doesn't feel fear? No, it's a man who feels fear, and goes ahead. That's Nelson Mandela. He felt the fear. He tells that story when he first went to Robben Island, where he was almost going to [be] attacked ... where the warder was about to hit [him] ... he said, "Stop. I am a lawyer and if you touch me I will sue you, and you will be as poor as a church mouse." But afterwards he said, "Man, I was scared. I was scared that I was going to be hit." But he didn't show it.
The secret talks with Kobie Coetsee and Niel Barnard. In a sense, had his previous 20 years in prison been a sort of preparation? He was sort of distilling that role, that part.
He was used to talking to white men in power about things that they could do, and certainly the secret talks were on a completely other level. It represents a great leap for him to do that. It shows his incredible self-confidence, and his confidence that, "I, Nelson Mandela, can do this, in a way that no one else can." In a way, if you are going to criticize his leadership, it might be for something like that, to say that only he can do it, and no one else. In a way, again like everything else, it was incremental. I don't know that he saw the end game at the beginning. He just saw it's a good thing at this point, after all these years, to engage, to talk. Just the same way he saw, in the late '50s, that this nonviolence business isn't working. We've got to change it. This nontalking business isn't working. We've got to change it. And he was changing it himself. Again, the personal became the political. He expanded outward.
Did he tell you anything about those secret talks that stood out in your mind?
Well, speaking of dignity and just as he hated indignity, he loved being treated with dignity. He told the story and spoke of P.W. Botha with such veneration, such affection, and the reason why ... I mean here ... the great crocodile, this miserable nasty man, who caused as much suffering as anybody else, Nelson Mandela talked to him like an old buddy. Why? Because the day that he met P.W., P.W. walked half-way across the room with his hand out to shake hands. Well, Mandela just thought that was the greatest thing. P.W. had acted like a gentleman, had treated him like a gentleman. That means so much to him. Again, that's one of his weaknesses in a way, that just as he is susceptible to flattery, he is susceptible to being treated this way and thinking that ... he must be a good man. He's treating me like an equal. Well, we know that's not true.
That is absolutely his weakness. And perhaps it explains what ... some people say about him, that [he] is over loyal and not a good judge of character ...
Right. But he has the virtue of his flaws, and his flaws were exactly the right flaws for that time, of being too trusting, of seeing the glasses half-full. That's what South Africa needed at that time. The man who'd been the leader of the underground movement, the firebrand who actually is too trusting, who errs on the side of thinking we are men of goodwill, you are acting out of good motives just as I am. Those are kind of Christ-like qualities that he has, that he isn't able to see bad motives in people. And he errs on that side, and he makes mistakes on that side. But those were precisely the kind of mistakes that South Africa needed at that time. But he's hard as steel ... he has a nice smile, but iron teeth.
But he is liable to trust people that he shouldn't trust, and he's been betrayed by them. That is one of the other regrets that he had, that he has trusted people who have betrayed his trust. But that's the sin of a great man. And that's the flaw you want in a great man, not ... particularly at this time. You don't want him to be mistrustful and devious in that way. And he's not.
In terms of this sense of betrayal. Winnie comes irresistibly to mind, although it is possibly being simplistic to put her into this bracket. ... But nevertheless, it's during this period when he is engaged in what must have increasingly become to him clear were very serious talks ... that 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. 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 of the 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.
... 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.
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, 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.
[With Winnie] there was an element of personal loyalty. One of the things he would always say to me and I really think was genuine --and remember, we were talking when they were estranged already--but he said, 'What Winnie went through was much worse than what I went through.' He's said that over and over again.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. 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 ...
And ... he spoke in admiration of Mandela's control...
I don't know how close you came to all this--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--would probably be the best. 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.
Let's move on a little bit to the assassination of Chris Hani, at which point things could have gone seriously bad. Tell us the story. You were with him when he heard the news about his extremely close political ally Chris Hani having been assassinated.
We had just come back from a long early morning walk in the Transkei ... we were sitting in this little room off the kitchen, where he had breakfast every morning, porridge, everything. We were beginning the interview. The phone rang. He picked it up. There was never anyone else to answer the phone there. He was in a kind of jovial mood. We'd been joshing, and we'd come from this long walk where he was always pleased, and I saw him talking in the phone, "Uh huh, yes." His face went from that pleasant pleased face to this stony cold mask. The kind of face of Nelson Mandela that you never want to be confronted with.
And what I saw happening there, because ... on that phone call he learned of Chris Hani's death. He went from being the master of the domain there, to being the consummate political animal that he is, and thinking of all of the consequences of this and what it meant. I almost felt I could see inside of this head and see all of these different gears whirring, because he was thinking about all the different political manifestations of what his murder meant.
Did he tell you anything at all as to why he decided right from the word go that he was going to retire from the presidency after just one term?
I asked him about that, and he has this lovely line that I've heard him use afterwards, ... about-- "I don't think it's right for there to be an octogenarian president." But in fact, I think one of the most revolutionary and extraordinary things that he did, was in his inaugural address, he forecast the end of his presidency. That had never been done in the history of Africa before, and what it reminded me of is George Washington. George Washington who people wanted to make the king. Like they wanted to make Nelson Mandela the king. Only served two terms. And there was no ... constitution at that time. He could have served an infinite number of terms. He said only two terms. It was a very kind of Washingtonian thing.
In fact, the parallels between Mandela and Washington are many also. The key one being size. People were awed by George Washington's size. He was 6'3'', 6'4'' in the 18th century. The same way they were about Nelson Mandela, and we forget now, as sort of modern man, how important that was, as a leader, as a wartime, as a maritime, as a military leader. That was important for both Washington and Mandela.
Well, Washington was the indispensable man. And Mandela was the absolutely indispensable man in South Africa.
Absolutely ... the fact that he said that ... is the capstone of his brilliance and genius as a leader. That he forecast the end of his reign at the very beginning of it, and that changed the whole dispensation. There was no danger after that really of what's going to happen in the rest of Africa is going to happen here. Even though he is the most enlightened leader and even though, in a way, he is the benevolent despot that Plato said we should have. He said, "No, that's the end."
The house in Qunu is built in the same architectural design as the house in Victor Verster. At first glance, that is kind of weird.
The house at Victor Verster, which we have to remember--it's really the first proper house he ever lived in, and he loved that house. It was simple, had an open plan ... for the first time, the man, who had this regal sense of himself, had a little castle. He loved that house. I think he [felt] don't fix it, if it ain't broke. Let's have the same house in Qunu. ... this house worked for him fine. So let's have it right here.
Quite possibly that year he spent at Victor Verster was the happiest in his life, in a sense, when he knew he was close to seizing the prize. He didn't have all those burdens and responsibility. He was seeing friends for the first time.
... One of the stories that I love is that there's this great Max Beerbohm essay called "Hosts and Guests," where he divides the world into those people who are naturally hosts, and those who are naturally guests. Nelson Mandela is a natural host. He is the world's worst guest. He is a host wherever he is.
So there in that house in Victor Verster, he could really be a host. "Would you like red wine or white wine?" He'd never served wine before, but he loved serving wine to his guests. He had a cook. "Would you like an omelet or would you like a tuna fish sandwich?" He loved that. He was the master for the first time in so many years. Even though in a strange way even in prison on the island ... he was the host of Robben Island. He was the man that they all revolved around. He became a host because he could never be a guest. You can't be treated with indignity if you don't allow yourself to be treated with indignity. You can't not be a host if you don't allow yourself to not be the host. That's the way he always was.
What do you think his greatest failing is?
I've always thought that his flaws were the flip side of his virtues and his virtues, in a way, are the flip side of his flaws. So that one of his failings is that he is a little bit naive, that he trusts people too much. But that's the flip side of being generous and generous-spirited. So I think that he doesn't always see the dark side of people, doesn't always see the ill consequences that might happen. But again that was what was necessary at the time. That's what history needed, that's one of his great weaknesses.
Do you think he's a saint?
No. I don't think he's a saint. Lord Acton once famously said that great men are rarely good men. There is no doubt that Nelson Mandela is a great man. But in some ways, you could dispute the case as to whether he's a good man. It is irrelevant whether he's a good or bad man. He is a great man, who did great and good things. In a way, it doesn't matter. You could say he's a bad man, because look at the way he treated his family. Look at the consequences for his family. Nobody would say that's a good thing. We chastise people for that all the time. So I don't think he was a saint in any way, shape or form. He seems like a saint because he's a relentlessly pragmatic man, who did something great in a world where there isn't moral clarity. There was moral clarity in South Africa. There were good guys and bad guys. He was on the side of the good guys. He was on the side of the angels. So he seemed like a saint. But he ain't no saint.
The great untold struggle and the great untold achievement of Nelson Mandela was not his struggle against the white government or apartheid. It was his struggle within the ANC in his last few years in prison and his first few years out. There was tremendous, tremendous antagonism to him. People who thought he might have sold out. People who thought that he was too inflated with himself. There were so many rivalries, and there were so many people who were conspiring against him.
He was very depressed in those first couple of years, because he really thought for a while that he wasn't going to make it as the leader of the ANC. That he was this paper tiger, a kind of figurehead, and he figured out a way there. The fact that people like Govan Mbeki, the last few years in prison, were telling people in Lusaka, "He sold out. He defeated. He's yesterday's man." And Govan wasn't the only person saying that. In Lusaka they had no idea of really what was going on ... and he had to combat that. I think [his] incredible strength was the battles he had to win within the ANC---just to be the leader of the ANC. Because those are tough guys. As tough as the guys he was battling against at the same time in the National Party. His great achievement is that he managed to solidify his power within his own party. Those were dangerous, dangerous times for him.
You say conspiring against him for those first two years after his release from prison. Isn't that a little bit of an overstatement?
... I'm extrapolating from a little bit ... it's one of the subjects that's sort of taboo with him. He won't talk about it. In part because of his loyalty to the ANC.
I think the great, great love of his life--more than Winnie, more than his family, more than his children--is the ANC. He loves that organization; that organization made him. That was his mistress, his mother, his wife. He loves the ANC. He really had to struggle within the ANC towards the end of his time in prison, because I think that here this thing that he loved, that he'd spent his whole life working for, were ... people in the ANC thought he had betrayed the organization. That was hard for him.
You speak about the moment that draws towards that period when he had decided to start conversations without telling his comrades. What had brought him to that moment?
As with all great historical events, they're partially accidents. He talks about how when he was in prison, after he'd left the island, and he got separated from his mates, in part for medical reasons, in part for reasons that he didn't really know, and he at first thought, as we all would, "This is terrible. I am separated from my friends after 20 years."
But great men and great leaders look at detrimental things as opportunities too, and he realized at the same time, "this is an opportunity. I am by myself. I can do some things now that my colleagues, my trusted and close colleagues cannot see. Because I am not sure that they are ready to see this." Which is a man from the ANC talking to the government, about some kind of new dispensation. I mean that's anathema. Nobody was supposed to be doing that.
So he was taking a risk, and the accident of his separation, although maybe that was not an accident from the point of view of the authorities, enabled him to get started in this small incremental way.
Talk about the education that he'd gone through--everything that had brought him to that.
My feeling is that from the very beginning, when he started talking to the authorities about whether they would have long pants or short pants, whether they would have hot food or cold food, he got in the habit and the knowledge of negotiating with the enemy. He was very at ease with that. He was very at ease talking with commissioners, with the police, and in a way that groomed him for those later negotiations. It made him feel, "This is a boxing match that I know how to handle. I know how to fight against these fellows. I know how they feint, I know how they move, and I feel confident in this arena."
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