frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

interview: Archbishop Desmond Tutu INTERVIEWED BY JOHN CARLIN

He was a major anti-apartheid voice in the 1970s and 1980s and participated in the worldwide 'Free Mandela' campaign.
Until the early 1960s, the tradition of resistance to apartheid was one of nonviolence. And [then] this idea of the armed struggle was considered by Mandela ... What were people's feelings, particularly black people's feelings, about this somewhat abrupt transition from one form of struggle to another?

archbishop desmond tutuI don't know whether it was abrupt. It came in ... the wake of Sharpeville, when people had protested peacefully and ... people were killed. Most of them shot in the back. It was becoming clear that the reaction of the authorities was to intensify repression, and to become increasingly more belligerent and intransigent. Of course, soon after Sharpeville, the ANC and the PAC were banned, which meant that the government was clearly shutting the door progressively to peaceful resistance.

...he probably is over-loyal to the [ANC] party again. And I think I mean that he should have been maybe a little more ruthless in saying, "Look, your performance is not up to scratch." We should have had more cabinet shuffles and re-shuffles. I mean, dead wood kicked off the cabinet. His sense of loyalty sometimes was a weakness."
But people were still very reluctant ... most adults ... wished that the whole thing could go away, and that somehow white people would get to hear the cry from the heart. They kept being hopeful--hoping against hope that you didn't need to go that route at all.

Do you remember what your own perception would have been of Mandela in those days?

... he already did have a presence as being a lawyer with Oliver Tambo. I think he already had this court presence. But apart from that, one didn't sense that he had any charisma, at that time, that would make you to say this guy is going places.

You were in London during the Rivonia Trial. Were you, nevertheless, prey to that drama of that moment?

I know that in quite a number of churches they had vigils on the eve of the judgment, and I don't recall that I attended one, but I was as educated as any and feared that they were going to be sentenced to death. So when the verdict came, the sense of relief was quite remarkable, which does indicate that they were beginning to fill a fairly prominent place in our consciousness.

... On the one hand there was relief. But on the other hand, by them being sent off to jail ... wasn't it true that the movement for some time to come was effectively crushed?


Tell me about that period ...

Well, the ... apartheid authorities seemed to have won. They were able to reverse the flow of capital out of the country, back into the country. And the worst deed ... even if they didn't say it explicitly, that these guys running the show are white. These uppity natives should really be kept quietly in their place. Not too blatantly. But these chaps are running a good operation, South Africa is prosperous. Our investments are making very good returns. The country, after the turmoil of Sharpeville, is stable ... this is how we would like it to be. They might not have said it quite so clearly and blatantly, but I think that that is how they have tended to operate ...

Was the name ... Mandela forgotten? He had this dazzling moment when he gave his speech at the Rivonia Trial. By the way ... did that impact on you at all? ...

Well, it was very good oratory. You felt a vicarious kind of pride ... But then you had this extraordinary thing; humanly speaking, he was done for. This is oblivion. The forces of evil are on the rampage, and basically ... the movement of resistance, there was very little to speak about. The stuffing had been knocked out of it. Very few people, actually, were giving an ear to people like Thabo and Johnny Makathini and Oliver Tambo ... as a theologian, I would say ... we would say conventionally that he had disappeared, that this was a waste. That is how we all felt. This is a waste. This good man.

It turns out, actually, that it wasn't a waste. He was growing in depth, whereas he ... would have emerged as someone bristling with anger and resentment, [which] time apparently lost. It was a time of incredible growth. And then God must have a kind of special kind of humor, sense of humor. Because I don't know when it got to happen that he came to be a symbol for many, especially, young people. It was spine tingling, actually, when you saw how people kept saying, "Release Nelson Mandela," and meaning really, "Release all of our political prisoners."

You say that he grew ... you didn't know him beforehand. So this growth process... what authority do you have to say that he grew ...?

... When you heard some of his utterances before going to jail on the subject of violence, for instance, you are aware that a transformation happened. That he was not the fire-eater 27 years later that he had been, which doesn't mean that he couldn't, for instance, get very angry. Because there were flashes of the kind of anger that he could have. I mean, when he gave de Klerk that dressing down at CODESA. He could feel a very deep anger. But I think what happened to him in prison was something that you have to now accept my authority for it, that suffering can do one of two things to a person. It can make you bitter and hard and really resentful of things. Or as it seems to do with very many people--it is like fires of adversity that toughen someone. They make you strong but paradoxically also they make you compassionate, and gentle. I think that that is what happened to him.

You mentioned the flashes of anger and you mentioned CODESA which is obviously ... the most public one. Were you by any chance in Oslo when he got the Nobel Peace Prize?

No ... He told me [about it]. That was one other moment in the deterioration of relationships between himself and Mr. de Klerk. That was one moment, again, when you realized how angry he could get. Because he felt that the way they had behaved, according to him, they had shown scant respect for "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika". And I think he found that unforgivable.

... There is a sort of sphinx-like quality to Mandela, certainly the public man. So when he has his flashes of anger, I am interested ... to try and get a sense of what is the motor that drives him ...

One has to be careful that we don't get hagiographic. (laughs) Because one of the wonderful things about him is that he is so human. He is himself aware that, in a way, there are feet of clay. That's one of his attractions actually ... it is genuine, his care for the people. I mean that's where you hit him in the solar plexus. That it isn't something that he puts on. It may come from the fact that he comes from a royal family. That even at that point, he was aware that he bears a particular responsibility. If his people are going to be prosperous, he's got to be a good chief, and a chief is a chief through the people ... It is a deep compassion which includes, as we have seen, those who have roughed him up. This "ubuntu" approach that ... ultimately if your humanity, if your personhood is enhanced, mine--ipso facto--is going to be enhanced as well ...

I genuinely believe his magnanimity, because I would have thought that the mask would slip and that there could be moments when this is put on. But I have been with him on a number of occasions, and have discussed things with him, where I would have expected that he would have had the opportunity if the thing was not genuine for it to have emerged. You know how quickly when you mention somebody who is or you thought was a political opponent, certainly in my presence, and it was a confidential conversation, he would start off looking for the good points in the other guy.

The release day, 11th of February 1990, was the second time that you saw him. And he came and spoke at your house ...

It was a great thrill ... he says he really was taken completely aback at the reception that he got. I mean, there is a kind of childlikeness about him as well. I've seen it when we had this service in the cathedral and the queen was there on the first celebration of Freedom Day. I said, "The people should applaud our president," which I sometimes do in churches. And you could see that his delight is like almost that of a child, as he acknowledged his people. You see it in his face. But it's a genuine innocuous childlike enjoyment.

He said he really was amazed as he came out of Victor Verster, and was even more amazed at the fact that it was multiracial, with so many white people ... he was over the moon, but he was also genuinely quite taken aback. There was a problem about whether he was going to address the people, because somebody was worried about security and so on. And they had taken him away and the very first thing I had to do was to get on the telephone to say to him, "If you don't come here, there is not going to be a Cape Town left, because the people will be so incensed. You have to come, because people are not absolutely certain that you have been released. You have got to come." And again, in a way, a sort of characteristic of him ... he has this regal arrogance, but he has also got a very deep humility. And ... when I said, "You've got to come," he came.


Over the coming years after that, you got to know him well, and to observe him both privately and publicly. You touched on this question of the hagiography. Do you think there is an element of political pragmatism, of calculation there, that people don't see on the surface?

My own sense is that this is a seamless rope. Obviously, of course, he is a politician and you have to have calculations, but it is not Machiavellian ... We arranged the summit between him and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, when everybody was trying to persuade the IFP to come into the election process ... I was quite amazed at the concessions he was willing to make, even at that point. And he admitted that he had not discussed with the other members of the ANC, but it was that he had such an urgency about trying to have a peaceful election that he was willing to give ground on virtually every single point. And one says well, yes, a politician is calculating. But this man seems to be ready to go to any lengths virtually, whereas you see in negotiations it is the give and take, "If I make a concession, what am I going to go back to my constituency with." At the end of that whole operation, he had conceded virtually everything to the one side, and had got nothing. I would have then said that he was either a good man, or a very bad negotiator.


What are his failings would you say? He is not a saint. You talk about his feet of clay.

The one weakness that I would say is part of his trend, it's this thing of seeing himself as a member of the ANC. And having got used to in prison ... operating by consensus, that he would probably find that it was difficult to move on his own. He would have wanted to ensure that the group came along with him. I would say that there were times when I would have hoped that he could have come out, and said either very clearly and firmly, "This is what we do." But then we would be encouraging a sort of dictatorial streaks. I don't know. But there were times when you hoped for a greater definiteness.

he had a wonderful relationship with Mr. de Klerk ... But once they got onto this whole thing of how to deal with the violence, they had their differences, and his perception was that they were not doing all they could to stem it. There was only one way their relationship was going to go, and it was down.
Then the other is that he probably is over-loyal to the party again. And I think I mean that he should have been maybe a little more ruthless in saying, "Look, your performance is not up to scratch." We should have had more cabinet shuffles and re-shuffles. I mean, dead wood kicked off the cabinet. His sense of loyalty sometimes was a weakness.

He has a strong sense of loyalty, but then he also has a strong sense of perceived betrayal, possibly expressed in the case of de Klerk and in the case of Winnie.

I don't know whether ... you would say betrayal in the case of Winnie. He loved her. He loved her very deeply. I don't think it's a hurt that he will have got over easily ... He loved her very,very deeply...

It is wonderful now that he's got Graca and you can see that he is in love, and she is a tremendous person, and he's blooming. He's really got young in the face ... (laughs). One is thrilled for him.

Ja, he had a wonderful relationship with Mr. de Klerk ... all of us ... there seemed to be a special kind of alchemy operating between them. But once they got onto this whole thing of how to deal with the violence, and they had their differences, and his perception was that they were not doing all they could to stem it. Then there was only one way their relationship was going to go, and it was down. And then the happenings in Oslo didn't help. Ja.

Does Mandela have an inner religious life, an inner spiritual life?

In this regard, he is a very secret person. I mentioned to him quite early on that I thought he should have a personal chaplain. He didn't say no, but he never did appoint a personal chaplain. But he did go to church and had the moments when he would receive holy communion and so on. But I think it was a very, very private part of his life, and he didn't find it easy to invoke or ... I mean a lot of his people said that [Mandela] would have won over many others if, at that particular point, he had made some reference to God. And we should respect the fact that he refused to manipulate religion in that kind of way... But I think he does have a great deal of inner resources, and that 27 years was partly responsible.

Perhaps one occasion when he really particularly expressed that, was after Hani's assassination ... What do you recall of Mandela's response on that occasion?

What I know is that if he hadn't been around, the country would, in fact, have torn itself apart. I would say now that it is highly unlikely that our country will be torn apart by really anything, because that 1993 was touch and go.

... I loved Chris very, very deeply, and it was one of the most devastating moments and the anger was palpable. Had [Mandela] not gone on television and radio ... our country would have gone up in flames. And you recall that the funeral was a flash point. Yet, again, one has to give a great deal of credit to our people, that with that deep anger that they had, that they were ready to listen to their leaders. Because it would have been the easiest thing just to release the dogs of war. That is what maybe many of the younger Turks had wanted to see happen. Mercifully, he was there and held them all at bay. And here we are today ... that even the high level of crime, which is such a ghastly thing that we have in our country, and all the other problems, but we will make it. I mean having survived that, we could survive anything.

There was this incident you had with the gravy train comments ... when you said the ANC has stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on. That was a couple of months or so after the elections, and Mandela sort of reprimanded you...

... the point was that we were saying we are so desperately anxious to see them [ANC] succeed that we wouldn't want them to trip themselves up by this kind of thing. And again, he is strange, because you see, almost immediately after that, I was on television ... and he speaks to me and ... he said ,"Oh you looked very attractive on television." As if this thing hadn't happened at all. But then a few weeks later ... he really broadsided me. The next time ... I was speaking with him on the telephone, I said, "For goodness sake, how come you can shout at me like that in public," and he guffawed.

It could very well have been that this whole thing about loyalty to the ANC was what came into play. That there were those in the ranks of the ANC who were a great deal more incensed. Those who do find it a little difficult to live with criticism. And one worries about that. That there are those of them who don't actually recognize people who are basically on their side, who are critical, not because they want to see them fail. It is precisely the opposite. It is to say we want to see you succeed, and that is why we mention these things. We don't mention them to put your noses out of joint. But there are those who are becoming ... I would say dangerously hypersensitive.

Does Mandela have a bit of that?

Sometimes he may have, but he's a great deal more accommodating. He is a great deal more laid back than perhaps some of the younger Turks, who think that when you criticize them, you are condemning them root and branch, whereas you're probably saying, "Look, you are a smart guy. You don't need that." I would actually hope, that they would have a far greater sense of security. They should say we have got an enormous majority. We are basically moving in the right direction. There is no reason for us to feel so threatened when we are criticized.

The rugby World Cup.Would it be right to talk about it in terms of the apotheosis? And, if so, talk to me about Mandela's part ...

I believe that that was a defining moment in the life of our country. He has a knack of doing just the right thing and being able to carry it off with aplomb. They say some other political leader, head of state, if they had tried to do something like he did, they would fall flat on their face as it were. But it was just the right thing. This sport being so white and really so Afrikaner. And with everybody baying for the Springbok emblem to be destroyed, and that he should come out wearing a Springbok jersey ... it was an electric moment. It's not anything that you can contrive ... it was quite amazing how many of those who were present would have been white, mainly Afrikaner, who had known this man to be a terrorist, that the government had done one of the stupidest things to have released him, and to have them yelling, "Nelson, Nelson, Nelson." Quite unbelievable. It had the effect of just turning round our country ... it is unbelievable that when we won, people could be dancing in Soweto. If you had predicted that is something that was going to be happening in 1995, most people would have said, "I think you are crazy. You have sitting in the South African sun too long, and it's affected your brain." But the incredible transformation, really a metamorphosis was an extraordinary thing. It said it is actually possible for us to become one nation.

You say it wasn't contrived. But it was, on the other hand, a fantastic piece of political theater. It was also an extraordinary act of leadership ...

There is a great risk. It could have fallen flat on its face. They could have remembered him only as an uppity native. Because remember that it was ... well, a year or so after the election. They had lost political power, and many of them thought this was the end of the world. It could have been the most awful disaster. Public relations and in every other way. Did he calculate it? Yes. No. I mean does he calculate when he says I am going to visit Mrs. Verwoerd? I am going to have lunch with Percy Yutar? I mean is it calculation? Is it he as having grown on Robben Island in those years, the lost years ... Is it that he would not be able to tell you whether he calculated or that it was spontaneous. Is it spontaneous? Is it calculated? The line is very thin.

What is the secret of his leadership?

You know, a leader is there for the sake of the led. He didn't need to tell people that. He wasn't in it for what he could get out of it. It's clear. It was established for them conclusively by the 27 years in jail. He paid a very heavy price and many leaders perhaps are not aware of it, that without a measure of suffering, it is very difficult to establish your credibility. And his credibility is beyond reproach. Because I don't think that he makes great speeches. I wouldn't say he would set the Thames alight, but I don't think people are listening to what he is saying. It is that he embodies something that makes people just feel good when they listen to fairly pedestrian speeches. It's, in fact, when he is released from the text, and he speaks off the cuff that he lights up. I wish he could do that more often--just chuck away the text, or change his speech writer ...

You use this word embodiment. You talked about the thrill of young people in the '70s, '80s, "Release Mandela." ... Is he the embodiment of the best?

... it says a wonderful thing about human beings, in fact. That out there, people don't look as we are just for success. They don't look for you to be someone who has made it materially. I mean why did they feel much the same kind of way about Mother Theresa? Because, you see, you could say she didn't really succeed. She ... was trying to look after derelicts and so on. It is that people have an instinct for goodness, and when they see goodness, they recognize it. There is a goodness in him that makes all of us feel a little better for being human. To say, "I am so proud to be human, because there is someone like a Nelson Mandela." That ... the core of that leadership you were speaking about, that young people ... there are about a quarter million of them to celebrate his 70th birthday at Hyde Park Corner. Many of those kids were not even born when Nelson went to jail. Yet, they had this tremendous sense that here is a good man. Here is someone who has been willing to pay a very heavy price. If I was going to preach you a sermon, I would say, well, Jesus said it actually long ago, that it is in losing your life, that you find it. It is proved universally, that he has the kind of influence and pull, that many envy, who would be willing to pay huge sums of money if they could but have a little bit of that. It's not contrived. It can't be bought. You have to suffer.

... A hundred years hence in the history books, what do you think it is that Mandela will be remembered for? What will his value be?

The icon of reconciliation and forgiveness, of holding together a country that everybody kept predicting "... give them six months, and this country will be down the tubes." It's four years later. I do believe that without him it would not have been possible to hold together those disparate parts that were flying all over the place. That is his greatest legacy.

And it is a legacy not just for South Africa. When you go round the world now, especially in the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, people do actually look at South Africa and see it as a sign of hope ... that will be his greatest achievement apart from having achieved with all off the people, the liberation of South Africa.

Do you see him as a, forgive the heresy, Christ-like figure?

No, I don't think it would be a heresy. There is no harm in saying, because our Lord wanted us to be Christ-like. Christ-like doesn't mean not having faults. It means that you do actually have a capacity to draw out the good that is in others. You make people slightly better than they would have been without your influence. It is helping people to move away from what would have been the normal reactions and responses that are destructive and move them in a direction where those forces are transmuted, and they become forces for good. So I wouldn't be appalled that you say he is Christlike ...

What is the ideal that he will represent through history, through the ages for people everywhere?

Magnanimity. Magnanimity. That readiness to see the good that is in the other. And I think he is about the only head of state where regional organizations of countries have all invited him, "Come and say good-bye," the EU, a similar operation in Latin America, in Asia. I don't think that anywhere ... do I recall a head of state being sought after virtually everywhere. I mean people say, "Please come ... have a state visit here," and that will be the highlight of their time. He is quite extraordinary that way.

What is it that they want a piece of?

Goodness. This is the wonder. Where you thought people are cynical, people who are skeptics, people are even ... secularists, who pooh-pooh spiritual values. When they encounter a good person, they become reverent. Because we are actually made for that goodness, and there is an excitement that people have to see it embodied. But it is actually achievable in a world where there is so much disillusionment, and where people see so many eager to use their positions, to feather their nests. To have someone who is genuinely altruistic makes you feel good. It makes you feel as good as when you saw that young man in Beijing standing in front of a tank. We said it's good to be human. To see that there is this kind of courage.


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