frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

interview: Anthony Sampson INTERVIEWED BY JOHN CARLIN

A British journalist who visited and reported from South Africa for decades, he has known Mandela since 1951. He is the author of nearly 20 books including the forthcoming authorized biography, Mandela, for which he interviewed hundreds of people.
The Mandela/Sisulu relationship ... What is it that Sisulu saw in Mandela?

anthony simpsonI think Sisulu saw Mandela as the ideal leader. The ideal, not just figurehead, but somebody who expressed African nationalism, and who had the presence and the natural sense of leadership, which he didn't have himself. Sisulu, of course, was in some ways a more brilliant man, more of an intellectual, though entirely self taught, but didn't have the presence. When he first met Mandela, he felt here is the real leader. You could almost say that he helped to create Mandela.

He was certainly a ladies' man and was proud of it. He took tremendous troubles with his appearance and was tremendously admired by many women, without question. But, of course, that element sometimes raised doubts as to how serious he was as a politician.
You said the two were sort of made for each other. What do you mean by that?

Well, they were complementary ... the crucial thing [was] they were not competing. They had quite different, almost opposite strengths, and developed tremendous warmth for each other. They could trust each other completely, and they shared almost every secret until the final secret, when Mandela negotiated in jail, and didn't tell or told Sisulu he was negotiating, but didn't [tell] what he was doing. Up until that moment they shared almost everything together. I think without Sisulu in jail, Mandela would not have been as serene and as a confident as he was. It was Sisulu who came to comfort him when his mother died, for instance. It was Sisulu who was always available for everybody as a kind of ... he was more of a father figure really than Mandela was. But in an unobtrusive way. And that strength for all the prisoners was enormous, but for Mandela, also, it was stronger than appeared at the surface.

We talked to Sisulu about when Mandela's mother died ... Sisulu told us Mandela was extraordinary phlegmatic in his response, and Sisulu seemed to say that he almost was more shaken up than Mandela himself was. What can you tell us about your sense of that?

In many of the traumatic occasions on Robben Island, whether it was Mandela's mother or his son dying, or when there was some terrible event, the others were amazed above all by his self-control. Often, he would be almost exasperating in his self-control. When he had a bit of important news, sometimes he would keep it back for some time until he told them. That could be quite difficult for them, actually ... it was then that they realized his ability to control his emotions, which of course became so crucial in the following years. That was rather different, from the Mandela that Sisulu had known before, who did often have to be retrained from making rather aggressive and even violent speeches ...

Mandela likes to joke that had it not been for Sisulu he wouldn't have gone to prison, he wouldn't have been involved in politics. What was it that attracted Mandela to the political world that Sisulu represented back then in the '40s?

Sisulu represented a mastery of the city and the politics of the city. After all, at that time, Mandela was still the country boy. We would say he still is, but he was more obviously the country boy then, who didn't really know his way around town. Sisulu was much more agile, spoke much faster and more colloquial English, knew how to get almost anything done. He was the estate agent who knows how all kinds of things worked. So to that extent he was partly a political manager, but also he was somebody who belonged particularly to the urban world. Though he did, of course, come from not far away from Mandela's country part. But it was that that fascinated Mandela, and the fact that he hadn't been to university, and wasn't formally academic at all made him all the more phenomenal really.

Mandela's own spurt of political involvement ... was it perhaps that sense of the indignity which black people were suffering? That was the spur that propelled him into political action, quite apart from his relationship with Sisulu itself?

The humiliation of city life for somebody who after all had been brought up as the son of a chief, and had an amazingly insulated life really, at the Great Place of his guardian, the regent, where he wasn't going to be a grand figure, but he was, in his world, very important. To go so quickly from that, to the humiliation, the anonymity, the jungle of Johannesburg, as it was then. That was more of a shock probably than Mandela's ever quite been able to describe ... I mean he's come to terms with it, but I don't think he's quite been able to convey how difficult it was, and how angry he could become.

Would you say that anger, that sense of humiliation, would account for why he was interested in pursuing the political life? ...

The aggression, at that time, was considerable, yes. The aggression pressed him into politics. Of course, the city life made him feel that he was part of a much larger society, who were suffering in a way that he hadn't properly comprehended, or hadn't felt before he came to Johannesburg. So it was a combination of the personal humiliations, which were almost visible every day, together with the awareness of being part of this bigger scene.

But also one has to remember that the '40s and the '50s were a very optimistic time, at the same time, so it wasn't just that they were oppressed. It wasn't just the sense of feeling of hopelessness. It was also the feeling that there was a very vibrant black culture growing up, in Soweto particularly, where he lived, which was exciting and which deserved and expected to be part of a larger world than it was. It was a combination; it wasn't just the humiliation and the setbacks. It was the real thrill of what--to me and to many other people who saw it--was one of the most exciting societies around.

In terms of personal humiliation ... we have heard from a number of people about the case of the teacups when he was in the law firm, and how Mandela couldn't use these [cups] ... Could you talk about the phenomenon of teacups for black and white people in that South Africa of that time. What that represented ...

People forget now, of course, quite what a crazy place Johannesburg was in the early '50s, certainly when I first knew it. Not just in the old strict apartheid terms, but in the conventional social terms of English- speaking, white South Africans. I mean the obsession with having separate teacups, never shaking black hands. The terror of black men and white women being in the same room. The idea that even to have a black secretary was thought to be unthinkable, actually. That absolute assumption that the two races were totally separate ... which was all, of course, connected with sexual threat--some terrible contagion would come from contact with black people. That was deeply felt amongst otherwise perfectly apparently civilized English-speaking international people.

How extraordinary was it for Lars Sidelsky to give Mandela this job in that world you are describing?

There was, of course, a penumbra in Johannesburg. There was a kind of fringe of activity which involved blacks working with whites, which was often very profitable to whites, so that you did have in lawyers' offices, estate agents and in different kinds of sort of brokerage and shops, shop keepers for black clients. You had contact there, but very often it was extremely exploitative. It was quite clear that the whites were simply getting as much as they could out of blacks, who were in a weak position. What Sidelsky was unusual in, was that he was much more generous and was much more interested in blacks, and that's what Mandela spotted and felt grateful to for the rest of his life. But that gratitude was based on the rarity of that phenomena really.

In 1948, when the National Party came to power ... apartheid began to be institutionalized. How did that change the climate for black people, in particular, for Mandela?

For the first years of apartheid, from '48 certainly until the Defiance Campaign began in '52, and quite a lot after that, it wasn't taken all that seriously. There was an expectation that the whole thing was not going to work. It would crumble. That part of it, of course, was simply an extension of traditional segregation, and the world trend was against that.

You have to remember that black South Africans knew a bit about what was happening in America, and America was very visibly going in the opposite direction. It was difficult to believe that apartheid could really set a totally different course from what was happening in the famous cases in America, which were declaring segregation illegal. So it's important to remember how fragile apartheid seemed and how obviously absurd it did. While at the same time it was part of a old colonial tradition, which was clearly fading as other imperial countries were pulling out of Africa.

Tell me about your first meeting and your first impressions of Mandela.

Mandela always says we first met in a "shebeen" and he's often introduced me to other people in that context, which was unusual for him because he wasn't a great drinker at all. Shebeens or speakeasy's were, on the whole, places where people got pleasantly drunk together, which was not his world. He was often working very hard in the evening and didn't have hard liquor at all.

But I first consciously got to know him really in the Defiance Campaign, which was his first major protest organization, when he was the chief volunteer. That's when he really emerged for the first time as being a serious political leader. He was clearly a formidable one; but to me, anyway, he was quite distant. He was not easy to communicate with in the way that Sisulu absolutely was. Partly, as he says now, he was defensive, particularly amongst white people, when they were not directly part of the political scene. And I wasn't part of the ANC or the communist party. At the same time, he did have that aloofness to other people too. Even to people like Ruth First, who found him quite arrogant, even though she was a great loyal party member, who was very close to Mandela in many ways.

He had this chiefly element. There is no doubt. He had a sense of the dignity of an aristocrat. He was very fine looking and knew it. He always had a great presence and was always tremendously well-dressed. He intimidated some of his black contemporaries to quite an extent. Even people like Dr. Matlane, for instance, who was a very effective friend and supporter, and his doctor. Even he felt he had to choose his words quite carefully with Mandela.

You just used the words aloof and defensive ... one often suspects that the flip side of that coin is a certain insecurity. Do you think that, despite everything that we see about Mandela, there is an element of insecurity in him and towards certain kinds of people?

It's very difficult to say whether it's insecurity. I think, myself, he was exceptionally secure in his background. Basically for sort of childhood reasons. Even the fact that he had four mothers as opposed to one, made him more secure. He had no lack of love and didn't feel threatened as a child. He grew up in the conditions, which as he described, are almost idyllic, really. So I don't think there was deep emotional insecurity there.

There, obviously, was the political insecurity and this incredible shock of finding himself in a humiliating situation in a big city. But he was defensive with good reason. After all, he was a proud man, who had found himself in a pretty hostile setting. But I don't think he was basically insecure. No. He wasn't the most successful person. He wasn't the cleverest of his generation by any means. He wasn't an intellectual. He wasn't a great sportsman. He was a good boxer, but he wasn't a great sort of team sportsman. So it wasn't a glorious career, and he was never a great lawyer. But nevertheless, he was, quite obviously, it seemed to me, a formidable leader, and was regarded by other people as such. So he had no real reason to feel insecure to that extent. But he was defensive in a rational way, rather than an emotional one.

You talk about the vibrancy, the thrill of, particularly, Soweto society, maybe Sophiatown, too. Describe to me the figure that Mandela cut in that vibrant world. The man about town, perhaps ...

Well, he certainly had a great range of contacts ... He was a popular, well-known figure in different areas. Whether it was as a boxer ... or as a ballroom dancer ... I suppose already politics was taking precedence over everything else, but he was a very social character. He was always around the place. To that extent, he seemed very confident. He had quite a strong touch of the showman, of course, which made some people, including myself, a bit skeptical about what really lay behind the show. But I think to most of his black neighbors and contemporaries in Soweto and in Sophiatown, he would have been seen as being a tremendous all rounder. But how seriously they would actually take him ... difficult to know at that stage. Certainly, for me, it was difficult, and even for many of them.

Was he a ladies man in those days?

Oh, he was certainly a ladies man and was proud of it. He took tremendous troubles with his appearance and was tremendously admired by many women, without question. But, of course, that element sometimes raised doubts as to how serious he was as a politician.

Can you remember any particular example of this showmanship ... that you saw in him that made you a little bit dubious?

He was always a master of imagery. He always looked right for the part. That's true of most great politicians, incidentally, but it was most striking in his case. I remember when he launched the Defiance Campaign ... he was the volunteer-in-chief, and there he was in a long military overcoat, supervising, looking every inch the sort of, as it were, the paramilitary man. Very imposing. The fact that he always looked right and that his smile, which was almost too good to be true, that wide, wide smile. Quite different from his smile today ... seemed like a sort of showman's smile, perhaps. You just wondered whether that wasn't as a politician as opposed to the real man. These were, I think, thoughts that many people shared, black as well as white.

Moving along to the time when he was in the underground, when he set up Umhkonto. What was white South Africa's reaction to the creation of that?

In the early '60s, again, there was an optimism throughout the whole of Africa about victories being quite soon and rapid, and also quite painless. In some parts of the British empire that was true ... Ghana, for instance, was a push over. Tanzania--there was never really fighting, there was never a revolution. There, the British just pulled out. And that affected a lot of people in South Africa. Both ways. A lot of black politicians were misled about that, including Mandela, into thinking it was going to be an easy walk to freedom. Whites certainly got scared that there was going to be a sudden change in South Africa, which would have corresponded with what was happening elsewhere on the continent. But, of course, it wasn't until the real challenge came from the blacks that the white reaction became more vicious, because there was a feeling amongst many of the white liberals, as well as the Afrikaners, that the blacks in South Africa were simply not going to get their act together. They were not going to fight or to mobilize anything very much. Therefore, South Africa could have a separate future from the rest of the continent.

How serious was Mandela about this armed struggle business? ... Was he prepared to follow through to the final consequences? ...

It's very interesting--and looking particularly in his diaries of his journey through Africa, when he first went abroad, and was talking to military leaders in other African states, and then doing some military training in Algeria and in Ethiopia--it's very difficult to judge quite how serious he was when he was starting to fires guns and to learn about guerrilla tactics ... there's no doubt, in retrospect, it does look all very amateurish, but again, you have to remember how optimistic the atmosphere was. How, in most African countries, it had been a pretty easy transition ...

At the Rivonia trial he first--to me and to many others--showed himself to have a far greater depth as well as courage than had been expected. I mean the showmanship was still there. But he was totally connected up to commitment and courage and very careful reflection too. He knew exactly what he was going in for at that stage. Maybe not militarily, but in terms of sacrifice.
Certainly, I don't think that Mandela foresaw anything like what was going to happen in terms of the military machine that he was going to come up against either before or after he went to jail ... The fact that they were up against, not so much machine guns or new weapons of war, but they were up against really increasingly effective policing and torture and informer systems and so on. That was what really they didn't foresee. Even though Algeria had told them something about that, that seemed such a different scene that they couldn't quite conceive of the power that was going to accumulate around the Afrikaner state.

Let's move along to the Rivonia trial. Would you be able to somehow summarize what his political beliefs were?...

At the Rivonia trial he first--to me and to many others--showed himself to have a far greater depth as well as courage than had been expected. I mean the showmanship was still there. But he was totally connected up to commitment and courage and very careful reflection too. He knew exactly what he was going in for at that stage. Maybe not militarily, but in terms of sacrifice.

I have thought it's a little bit like my memory of Churchill before the Second World War ... [he] was thought to be a showman who was ... spoiling for a fight without really knowing what he was doing, and was getting slightly sad really. Of course, he was much older than Mandela. But who then suddenly ... meeting the destiny and was the man that could save the country. There was a bit of that I think, suddenly that person that appeared to be, perhaps, too much of the showman became the authentic hero. But behind that there was quite a lot of political thinking, and he did know what he was fighting for ...

... I personally had some glimpse into his thinking in the Rivonia trial through an odd accident that I happened to be in the court room one day, covering it for The Observer newspaper in London, and Mandela recognized me and smiled. I couldn't resist making a clenched fist sign, and as soon as I did that, the warders all rushed round and took me away and questioned me ... Mandela, watching this, then sent a message asking me whether I could help him to edit the speech that he was preparing for his trial. What was fascinating for me, was that I then saw the handwritten speech (Read the speech) that he had written himself, describing his upbringing and so on. It was then I first realized how deep that African root was, that enormous sense of his identification with his own people, and how little connected that was with the commoners that he was generally ascribed to be following. But certainly that whole speech that he wrote himself for his final address, was extremely carefully worked out, and extremely honest in its description of his development. Much more so than many people, including myself, had realized beforehand.

Tell me a bit more about that speech. How long did he take to write it. What other impression, recollections ...

The speech had been thought out and discussed with his close colleagues. They had all looked at it. They asked me to look at it simply because they wanted to be sure that it would be understandable to an international audience. They were very conscience of the impact it was going to have. My suggestions were, in fact, pretty worthless on that front. But it was clear that from the beginning, Mandela and his colleagues had seen it as the great statement. To some extent, it was like the one that he made two years before, when he first went to jail in '62, when it was a kind of rehearsal for that. But the ... important difference ... in '62 he knew he was going to go to jail, but he thought that it would be for a relatively short period. It was only a sentence of five years; it could have been less. But the second time, '64, he knew it was for life. It was very interesting how he was able, at that point, to analyze his own political development in a way that stands up historically, tremendously well. There was nothing false in the analysis he gave. There was nothing misleading about his relationships, either with the communist party or with his own people. If you see what happened after he came out of jail, it entirely conforms to the pattern that he wrote before he went to jail, which is not very common amongst politicians--that 27 year consistency.

When he went to prison, one has a sense that he was almost, from the beginning, preparing for the inevitable day when he would sit down to talk with the government. Is that an interpretation that you can support?

He had a sense of destiny fairly early on, though he denies that. Of course, within the jail setting, as his colleagues make clear, his own leadership was becoming much more distinct and subtle in the sense of being tremendously aware of all human relationships ... a lot of what he wrote, a lot of his letters and his very interesting essays in jail, have a kind of assumption behind them that in the end he will be required to lead his country, as well as his people. Again he would deny that, but the language is such that sometimes, quite early on, he was writing letters from jail, which sound very much like the letters of a president really. And his sense of political tact and diplomacy, which was not so developed before he went to jail, became very developed in his letters, and his ability to keep everybody happy, and to reach out to all kinds of people. Extraordinary in the way from jail he was writing to every kind of person either that he's met or he admired, very much as if in the end he was going to bring the whole country together.

His relationship with the warders, with the prison authorities is obviously fascinating. To what extent did that serve as a useful training ground for when it came to actually having the secret talks with members of government in the mid '80s onwards.

Personally, I think that quite close contact with some of the Afrikaner warders was the absolute key to his understanding, both of the Afrikaners, but also of negotiation. His ability to overcome their insecurities, to understand where they came from, to empathize with the Afrikaner predicament and suffering. His own reading about the Afrikaners, all that was partly probably a deliberate rehearsal for his own negotiations, but also it took him by surprise. He was surprised by the warmth and the ability of some of the Afrikaners to come right round. And his belief that they could actually be converted to his side ... a lot of that stemmed from his personal experience of some of those people.

When it did actually come to start talking with Kobie Coetsee, with Niel Barnard, perhaps because of that experience, or because of their lack of experience of being with black people, he had something of the upper hand in that sense?

Quite a few of the Afrikaners he dealt with were so amazed by his intelligence and his ability to understand their position, that they were almost too easily overcome from that point of view. Many of them expected he would be like a tribal homeland Bantustan leader, and the Afrikaner has been quite effective in the corrupting and seducing some of those, and that was their first shock they had. They treated him rather as they treated his nephew, Kaiser Matanzima, the head of the Transkei. It took them quite a long time to realize that this man, who had all the courtesy and the chiefly style of a tribal leader, had a total toughness beyond it. And that comes through very clearly in the psychological profiles that I've read from the prison, which show that they were continually distressed and amazed by the fact that he never seemed to give an inch throughout those years. Partly because they thought he would be like a homeland leader.

Tell me a little bit more about those psychological profiles ...

What is interesting to me when you look at the profiles they wrote was actually how early on they did realize that he was the authentic leader of all the African people. And that they obviously had a great shock in that, and a lot of them had expected that he could be, as they put it, rehabilitated, which was a great phrase. Some of them continued to think that right through to the end. But a lot of the reports made it clear that he had the basic intelligence, toughness and courage, which very few people can compete with. Of course, that was a real problem for them. What do you do? I mean, do you get rid of him? Which I'm sure they thought about ...

Mac Maharaj tells the story about once when they were thinking of escaping and there was a knife hidden somewhere, and Mac thought, "Oh my god, this is a trap and now they're going to kill us." What's your take on that?

There are quite a lot of bits of evidence to suggest that at one period they hoped that they could trap him into trying to escape, and to kill him that way. They certainly didn't want to have a sort of crude assassination ... the peak period of that was probably '75 ... and there's quite a lot of evidence that escape plans were being encouraged in order to accomplish that. But later on, by the time that he was actually ill for a time, the balance had changed. They were terrified that he would die in prison, and that they would find no alternative person to deal with. But there's no doubt that some people were playing with the idea of bumping him off.

When those secret talks began in the '85-'86 period, how did the two agendas, Mandela's agenda and the South African government's agenda differ?

There are many people who would say that the time of '85, which was when the Eminent Persons arrived in South Africa, that they could have done a perfectly good deal at the time. Pik Botha certainly now says he felt it then, and I think he did think it then. And a great deal of bloodshed and violence and destabilization could have been avoided. A great deal of the intransigence was in the personality of President Botha himself. Also, my own belief is that a lot was to do with the intransigence of Mrs Thatcher in London, who could have given quite a formidable extra push. But by '85, the more intelligent people, including Niel Barnard, head of the national intelligence, did see the opportunity of a deal, which could have avoided a great deal of misery, and could possibly have bought more time for the Afrikaners than they got. But people like Sisulu ,for instance, who argued with me that at that time in '85, the Afrikaners were not actually ready for it, that the release of the prisoners at that point, and the inevitable militancy that would come, would then have led to a far bigger right wing revolt amongst the Afrikaners than happened when it came in '90, '91.

When the likes of Niel Barnard and Kobie Coetsee began these talks with Mandela, despite the reports they have [saying] what an impressive fellow he was, they still felt that they could, to some degree, manipulate him and sell him a deal which fell some way short of majority rule.

There was a very strong belief that you could not necessarily manipulate him, but you could divide and rule. After all, this was a very old British tradition, as well as an Afrikaner one, and very difficult to resist that concept that while letting out Mandela, you could unleash forces, encourage forces that would achieve that balance, and that at one time appeared to be happening. There was also that, but a complication was that the reports that were coming from the secret talks, from Niel Barnard, were not made known to the cabinet. They were made known to P.W. Botha, but Pik Botha complains that he was never told about these very interesting and promising talks.

The release. A lot of people were anxious as to what Mandela was going to be like, whether he was going to live up to expectations ... could you characterize your own feelings?

I certainly had serious worries that the whole build-up of the Mandela icon all around the world, was so extravagant that he couldn't possibly live up to expectation. And could well have emerged as such a frail old man that he would have to retire pretty soon. Many people thought that the myth was totally disconnected from any likely reality. My biggest surprise when I went to see him a week after he was released in Soweto, in discovering him to be, to my mind, a much more ordinary human being, a much sort of cozier one almost, and much more charming and accessible than the person I'd known before he went into jail. As he told me later, he was determined, of course, that he would protect himself from his own image. And that he would be as ordinary as he could be. But that was, I think, the moment which the future Mandela was assured is when he showed himself capable of such an extraordinary human modesty or simplicity really. Which is what, of course, so many people found so enchanting about him.

You said what coherence there was between the Rivonia speech and the man who emerged 27 years later. In what way was Mandela different, changed from the man who went into prison in 1964 ...

The aggression in him and the rhetoric that went with the aggression it, appeared to have vanished. In fact, it had become totally controlled, while he had clearly mellowed and matured in his thinking, the change in rhetoric was very striking. I mean his prison writings are so much more interesting than what he wrote before he went to jail. What he said both privately and publicly afterwards was so much more interesting. He has had a capacity for saying straight-forward things in a very interesting way. I think that was very striking. But also having thought much more fundamentally, his reading of literature, as well as politics and the law, all that had given a far greater weight to him. In some ways, it's reminded me of one or two friends of mine who have been monks, who had a sort of same kind of solitary life, who have the feeling that they can say what they think because they've acquired that basic sort of peace of mind, and strength within themselves. They don't have to think twice ... my feeling is there is something of that in him.

One thing we glimpse in talking to people about the late '50s, in particular early '60s Black Pimpernel period, is that there was a certain recklessness, bravado about Mandela in those days, and that that had been significantly tempered. Would you agree with that?

Certainly, when you look back on it, it does appear to be extraordinarily rash and even reckless, his behavior in the early '60s, up to the time he was arrested. So many people warned him about the dangers of being caught ... he certainly makes it clear he wasn't surprised to be caught, though the timing wasn't quite what he expected. But at the same time, he thought he would only be in jail for five years, at the most. And would then probably be following much more what was happening in the rest of Africa. After all, Kenyatta had been in jail for I think five or six years in Kenya, and then become prime minister or president. So it was then at that stage in '62, it was more like, in South Africa seemed to be more like the African pattern.

If Mandela had been executed in 1964 ... what would the assessment have been of him?

Even if things had happened otherwise in jail, he could well have been forgotten. If he'd been executed, there would have been a tremendous outcry. But there was a tremendous forgetfulness by the end of the '60s. I remember going back to South Africa in 1970, when nobody ever mentioned the word ANC. Everybody was terrified of even mentioning the possibility of a black opposition. It really looked as if the whole concept of not just the ANC, but a black protest had been removed from the map. Mandela's name was not mentioned at all. Even amongst black friends.

The effectiveness of that embargo, of that law, which forbade the mention, was amazing. He was in a gulag, in the Russian sense, and the same thing was in the press abroad. I checked up in the press cuttings. Mandela's name might come up once a year in The Times of London, for instance. But to all intents and purposes, he had been forgotten. It was only really with the Soweto revolt of '76 and ... through Winnie Mandela, who really kept his name going in a way that it would not have done otherwise. So whether he'd been executed or just effectively forgotten, he could have disappeared from the political scene.

After his release ... some people in the movement are loathe to be very frank about, but there was a lot of tension about Mandela ... his battle, was it not, was to get the movement behind his program when he came out?

Of course, he had many much fiercer arguments on Robben Island with his left wing colleagues than they discussed at the time, which is now beginning to emerge. Some of the documents that are coming out now show that there was really pretty fierce discussion, and not surprisingly because it was a fundamental division in the end as to whether you were going to have a rolling revolution or a seizure of power, as they would call it on the left; or whether you were going to go for a negotiated revolution, which would be peaceful and which would involve very definite compromise. So the argument had to be a fierce one. And that was a very, very difficult period for Mandela.

But the advantage was, which has to be remembered, is that he had served longer in prison than anybody else, and however much you used the word sell-out, which was used against him, there is a limit to how much you can say against somebody who has sat 27 years in jail ... you could almost argue that that was his historical achievement, in fact, to have the credentials which were such that he could persuade a party that was probably more militant than he was, and more unprepared for a negotiated settlement, to persuade them to accept that ...

Let us move to now. Since he becomes president, why has he not gone for a second term?

Mandela always had the feeling that apart from a desire to retired when he was 80, and the feeling that it was rather ridiculous to be trying to rule a country when you were over 80, he did have a very strong feeling that South Africa must be a real democracy, and his job was to make the transition. Both from a white oligarchy to a multi-racial democracy. But also from what undoubtedly was a more authoritarian leadership style into a generally democratic one within the ANC itself. So he really felt that that was a very important part of his mission or destiny.

Now, it's pretty simple for a journalist within South Africa today to look at the problems with the economy, crime and to gather evidence to say ... his presidency has been a complete disaster. Look at the problems the county's enduring. Is it fair to measure Mandela in terms of that, or should one measure his achievements as president in some other way?

Well, I've no doubt that he regards his main mission, his main achievement, was to unify the country, to hold it together, in a peaceful way. And that, in my belief, he's achieved. The things that he's criticized for, for allowing crime or corruption or incompetence, if you like, to spread, and for public services to deteriorate--there is a part of a wider problem. Part of which is to do with democracy. People often make contradictory complaints about him. They say that he's too autocratic or that he's too democratic. They say that he should intervene on these crucial questions, whereas he increasingly says (has for the last two years or three years) that his job is to be basically the same anywhere at this stage and that he is not supposed to interfere. He does, of course, sometimes interfere, but the idea that he can himself dictate how his own party is going to behave has never been the truth as you know. There's never been a moment in which he could really effectively tell the national executive what to do. Let alone the cabinet.

If you had to summarize his achievements, as president, within the terms that he would define his objectives, what would it be?

I think, myself, it is the classic achievement of the liberator, which you would associate with people like Washington or Lincoln or some of the great military leaders ... [he's] clearly, of course, not really a military leader. It wasn't a liberation by conquest. That's what makes the story more interesting. It's like a cross, if you like, between Gandhi and Washington. The idea being the unifying element itself was terribly important. He was influenced by both Gandhi and by Nehru into feeling that you could create that sense of national unity and self respect and idealism, without resorting to force to achieve it. Even though he wasn't, by no means, a pacifist, there was always that element of not wishing to be the military conqueror, which of course would have been a far bloodier path. But I think it is as a unifier, as a liberator, and above all as a multi-racial ...

What is striking to me is that fact that he is both a realist and an achiever in the multi-racial element. He has never thought, like so many people on the left have thought, that you could have an ideal sort of raceless society. He has always been very conscious of people's need to have a community which tends to be their own race, and to belong to that. He has never thought that you would have this idealistic conversion where people don't notice race. At the same time, he's achieved more in terms of multi-racial cooperation than most people thought possible--in his own cabinet, in his own government. And his own lifestyle, where he sometimes doesn't seem to notice what color anybody is at all. His friendships show no apparent discrimination, whatsoever. So that's what appeals to the world so much at the moment, to people like Blair or to Clinton or to other world leaders is his ability to be above race, not to be a great sort of campaigner or battler, no great anti-racist crusader, which is much less effective. But to somehow appear to be above the whole scene. That's where his own life makes such good sense.

One talks a lot about his marriage, his love of Winnie and all that, but in a way this marriage has been with the ANC, to politics and to the mission. Is he finally now beginning to give a new emphasis to the personal ... Is he laying down his sword and taking up the glass of wine, so to speak?

The influence of Graca Machel has been tremendously important. She really has brought a much more relaxed sort of human family dimension ... by making it much easier for him to talk to his children and grandchildren, and by providing a much more stable and warm setting. One forgets what a long time it is since he's had that.

The loneliness of that early period was clearly agonizing, and certainly, that's made a tremendous difference in terms of his perspective. Genuinely he's prepared for retirement, even though it probably will be harder than he realizes when the time comes not to interfere. But my own sense is that he just is a much happier man. He doesn't have that agony of loneliness. After all, it was an extraordinary time to be the most famous man in the world, but when you are also the loneliest one. It's true of some politicians of course, that they leave their family behind as they become at the top.

Do you think he'll go to Qunu as he says he will?

My own feeling is that he'll find it quite difficult to retire ... he will be, of course, tremendously in demand in the rest of the world ...

The showmanship ... the grand gestures, dealing with the warders ... dealing with Niel Barnard and Coetsee, the rugby World Cup final. Can you analyze this, what's genuine....

Even his closest aids and friends find it difficult to know how much of his technique is deliberate and how much it's instinctive. It's got a great deal to do with his upbringing. A lot of his instinctive understanding of politics and presentation comes from those early years when he watched his guardian. The effectiveness of his clothes, the need for a presence, how you show yourself ... is part of the aristocratic tradition, the kingly tradition, which any Prince of Wales is taught, for instance.

It's the understanding that the image and the reality are very closely linked, and that you influenced people in that way. And it's got beyond any kind of self consciousness. A lot of people talk of him as if he was the master modern politician, who can as it were, out-Clinton Clinton in terms of the tricks of the trade, of spin doctoring. But actually, the roots of it go right back to that much older tradition ... it's got to do more with that older tradition than it has with any kind of deliberate box of tricks.

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