frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

interview: Richard Stengel INTERVIEWED BY JOHN CARLIN

This is a revealing and astute analysis of Mandela's life, character and leadership. Stengel collaborated with Mandela on his autobiography, taping approximately 75 hours of interviews and conducting over 30 others. He was with Mandela in South Africa for most of 1993, and during the election of 1994. Stengel is Senior Editor at Time Magazine and in addition to the Mandela book, is author of January Sun: One Day, Three Lives, a South African Town.
You spent quite a lot of time with Mandela in the Transkei. Were there any reflections that you made about his Transkei existence, his tribal existence, and how it helps illuminate our understanding of Mandela?

richard stengelWhen I was with him in the Transkei, I used to get up with him very early to take these incredibly long walks around the hillsides near his house in Qunu. He is a very early riser, as he always tells you, and I am not a very early riser. So he would always tease me about how tired I was and that maybe I had to stay up all night in order to get ready for the walks that began at 5:30. And this was the most wonderful part of his day.

He wouldn't have breakfast. He would leave his house at 5:30, surrounded by these body guards, and it was quite cool in the morning in Transkei, and he would pick a direction to go from his house there, that he remembered from when he was a boy. He would follow those paths, and we would always come within about a half an hour to some tiny little village. And this was the most remote place on earth, and at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning, he would knock on the doors of these rondavels and say, "Good morning."

In some ways, he's a very impatient man, but in negotiations, in politics, he's enormously patient and part of that comes from his upbringing as a boy and seeing how the chief listened to what everyone had to say.
What was amazing to me, was that almost half the time, the people didn't know who he was. They thought he was some visiting chief, maybe. I remember one morning he got this lady up, woke her up, and she started bawling him out in Xhosa. And then suddenly a little light went off in her head, and she said, "Oh, you're the man in the newspaper." It really was extraordinary. People didn't know who Nelson Mandela was, and he reveled in the fact that they didn't know who he was.

This was his way of investigative reporting almost ... he wanted to know how the people were living. And this was enormously instructive for him. At the same time, it helped him keep this kind of chiefly role that he felt he had over the area around his house, where he was born. It was enormously instructive about him ... he'd give a speech somewhere at some little village. No one spoke English there. He spoke in Xhosa. Nelson has a wonderful sense of humor in English, but when he was speaking to the people in Xhosa, it was as though there was a comedian up there. They were laughing. They were rolling in the aisles just all the time, and I always thought there is a different personality that he has speaking in Xhosa than speaking in English. He's much more sort of proper in English. He's much more kind of 19th century English gentleman in English, because of course that's the English he really learned ...

... You also saw him in action in Johannesburg, presumably during the time of the negotiations with the government. Is there some way of making any observations about the connection between what he brought from that chiefly, tribal environment, that he then used or in some way expressed itself in the modern environment?

Yes ... we talked a little bit about this in the book. He talked about when he first went to Mqhekezweni, which was the chiefly area, after his father died, where he was in effect adopted by the king. He talks about listening to the elders there, and as a young man, as a boy, he really was quite shy. He was a little bit self conscious, and he wasn't very talkative. He really listened. One of the things that he absorbed there was this ability of the chief to listen to what everybody had to say. The chief didn't speak until everybody had had their say, and then he sort of weighed that.

One of the things that was reflected in the negotiations, is that Mandela didn't weigh in with his opinion until everybody had spoken, and that gave him a great deal of leverage. In some ways, he's a very impatient man, but in negotiations, in politics, he's enormously patient and part of that comes from his upbringing as a boy and seeing how the chief listened to what everyone had to say. In negotiations ... that gave him some leverage, gave him some power, because his opinion remained a mystery until the last. It seemed more forceful because he had held it in abeyance until then.

His regal quality, this self control that you see in him, are there any connections there with the chiefly role--how the chief is expected to behave?

When I first started working with Mandela on the book, people around him would always say to me, "You must remember that he was groomed to be chief." What I discovered is that that was a tiny bit of a misnomer. His father was an appointed chief. He wasn't a blood chief. In fact, Nelson wouldn't have become a chief, because he wasn't in a direct line of succession, because his mother was the wrong wife for the succession. So he wasn't really a chief in the way that people think, but he was from a family that would be a kind of aristocratic, upper-middle-class family. And when he moved to the king's village, he was able to observe this.

But there was a kind of natural "aristocratic-ness" about him, a kind of natural princeliness, and part of that jarred with him when he saw real royalty, and he observed them. He observed the way they walk, the way they carry themselves, what they dressed like, what they wore. Even his fabulous posture comes from as a little boy observing the way the king stood. In a way, he was a natural king ...

I wonder if one could say that it was because he knew he wasn't entirely of that lineage, that he perhaps strained that much harder. It was a fairly natural human instinct to be all the more regal in his bearing and so forth ... would that be a valid thing to say?

I think that is a valid thing to say. He, what is that French expression [plus royaliste que le roi]--more royal than the king, more kingly than the king. He epitomized that a little bit himself, because he thought, "I can be an amalgam of this. I have some royal blood and I can be more kingly than the king in just the way that I am."

And he saw this and it appealed to him in a way. In fact, one of the things that happened when he went to Johannesburg for the first time after being treated with great deference where he grew up--it bothered him. It put a chip on his shoulder. He hates indignity of any kind and suddenly he is confronted with indignity everywhere he went. It gave him a kind of ... some poets have a lover's quarrel with the world. It gave him a quarrel with the world, with the way the world was in South Africa, with apartheid, because it treated him with indignity at every turn. He loathed that; it really rubbed something wrong inside of him.

One thing that we have tried to identify is the motor that drove him through his life's quest. The spur. To some degree, would that be part of the answer--this sense of his own dignity having been offended and wanting to put that to rights?

I think that's right. I have often thought to myself, and having been with him in so many private moments and seen what he's like in these intimate moments, had he grown up in a utopia, not that any of us do, he would have been quite happy to be a small town lawyer, and have a family and farm, maybe. There was no burning ambition in him to be a great leader, unless it was necessary for him to become a great leader ...

What made him a great man was the fact that his dignity was offended. That when he went out into the larger world, it didn't jibe with his own conception of himself, and he realized, "If I feel so deeply spurned, and everything is so deeply unfair to me, think how it must be for all these other people, who are not as able to withstand it as I am." That was the motor, that was the trigger. Because I don't think he is a naturally reflective or introspective man ...

... It is a feeling of responsibility that you are describing there, which perhaps brings us back to the idea of the chief of the aristocracy, being responsible for his people. Maybe that kicked in at that point.

One never knows what drives people to do this sort of thing. I mean one of the things that he even recalls, and he said to me that it was a terrible moment in his young adult life, when he had these small children and when they were in Soweto, and he would leave every night or be gone for long periods of time. They'd go, "Daddy why aren't you here. I miss you. I am lonely." He'd have to say these terrible tragic words which were, "Well, there are other children out there, and they are lonely and sad, and they don't have their father either, and I have to think of them."

What is it that makes a man say that to his child, as opposed to another person who says, "I can't leave my child?" And what drove him to feel that? ... well, it's a little bit what we were talking about in terms of his amour-propre -- of his dignity being offended. But it was a slow, slow process. It took a long time for him to move from a person who himself felt offended, to a person who is going to take up the cudgels for everyone else who feels offended.

... What was it that Walter Sisulu saw in Mandela? I believe you talked to Sisulu about it.

Well, first, it just reminded me of one thing that Nelson said when he talked about meeting Walter. It was always interesting to hear him describe meetings with people that he first met when he was a young man in Johannesburg. One of the things that impressed him about Walter Sisulu, and it always impressed him as a young man was ... [that] Walter's English was very good. He was always impressed when a black man spoke proper English ... What impressed him about Walter, among other things, was the fact that he was a businessman, that he seemed to be generating income, he spoke English. He could survive in that world that Nelson was wondering whether he could survive in, and wanted to survive in.

When I talked to Walter about what he saw in Nelson, Walter is such a lovely human being, and he almost had this vision that when Nelson Mandela walked into his office, and Walter Sisulu ... he's stocky, but he's quite a small man. And when Nelson Mandela, this young, strapping, budding attorney, with shoulders as wide as an air force carrier, and this handsome face, and this great posture ... he thought, "Here is a king, but here is also a potential leader."

What Walter told me that we could never use in the book, and obviously this was a little bit after the fact, but what he realized as he got to know Nelson, was, "Here is our natural mass leader. I am a leader. I am a short man. I have a soft voice. I am shy. There are other people like me, who are in the ANC and dedicated. I cannot stand in front of a roomful of people and get them excited. This man, this boxer, with a beautiful smile, who is so winning--he is our mass leader. We need to be a mass organization." That was their aspiration. So they needed someone who could take them to the promised land of being a mass organization. Nelson Mandela.

One word that we have heard from a number of people who are close to Mandela and Walter Sisulu ... to describe their relationship, was that Walter "groomed" Nelson.

I don't know how true it is. We like those kind of "My Fair Lady" stories, where Dr. Dolittle takes the urchin girl and turns her into a lady, and I am not so sure that Walter saw that far ahead of the road. He saw, as I was saying, that Nelson was a natural mass leader, but I don't think he had it all plotted out.

I think that it's a two-way street. Nelson watched Walter and saw the way Walter operated and the fact that Walter was very calm. On the island they called Walter, "Allah" because he was so wise and calm, and at an early age Nelson saw this is one way to be as a leader. He wasn't that way because he was volatile at this stage, but at least he saw that with Walter. It may look, from hindsight, that maybe Walter was grooming him to be like he was. But in fact, Nelson was looking at Walter and saying, "This is one way for a leader to be and I will factor this into my persona."

You talked about his volatility. What examples of his volatility in those early days, let's say pre-Rivonia Trial, stand out in your mind?

He was an Africanist as he became radicalized. He wasn't a natural revolutionary--whatever that is. He wasn't at all. In a way, he's a natural status quo person. So when that person does become a revolutionary, he becomes an extremist almost. He had to justify to himself almost psychologically, and so he's an emotional person.

There were times when he broke up meetings in the early days, when he was a member of the ANC Youth League, and when Indians wanted to become members of the ANC Youth League. There was a time that he talks about where he tossed some people off the stage. He used to get up at rallies and give these kind of fiery speeches ... so different than the Nelson Mandela we see today. But he was bursting with this kind of emotion. He didn't know what to do with it, and this was an outlet for him. The kind of volatility and extremism of the ANC Youth League appealed to him, because he was that kid in the gang who wanted to do the most daring thing. He wasn't the person sitting in the back seat who said, "No, no, let's not push the car over 60 miles an hour." He was gunning the engine, and that's the way he was in those days.

What would be a criticism of him in those days? That he was possibly dangerously reckless for the purposes that he was actually espousing? Would that be too unfair?

Part of it is the sort of recklessness of youth in general. I don't think he was ever reckless in the sense that he really took terrible chances and terrible risks. He took some for himself. But I don't think he ever did it in terms of what might jeopardize the movement, and no matter how emotional he was, or how volatile, he still retained that incredible respect for his elders and for chiefly people. I mean even when he went to see Chief Luthuli, to remonstrate with the then head of the ANC who had renounced violence, he was utterly respectful. He would never in a million years say something to Chief Luthuli that the chief might find offensive, even though he was this hot-headed young man of the ANC Youth League. He was a very polite young man, at the same time, a hot-head.

How do you interpret his decision to go for armed struggle? It's one thing being a fiery rhetorician, another thing is starting MK.

The thing about Mandela is that he never really was a rhetorician, he was never really an intellectual. He was, most of all, a pragmatist. Even as a young man he was a pragmatist. Now we certainly see him as a pragmatist ... for all of the kind of high flown, highfalutin intellectual revolutionary talk that he engaged in, he was most of all a pragmatist. Basically, he was thinking, "Well, how can we win? How can we topple the regime?" He embraced nonviolence when nonviolence seemed like the practical way to go about it. But after kicking against the bricks, and knocking your head against the wall for a long time, he just realized from a practical standpoint, it wasn't going to work.

He has no love of violence, as he would say many times. He tells that lovely story when he was at the farmhouse in Rivonia, and he was trying to teach himself how to shoot a gun. He had never shot a gun before. And here was the head of Umkhonto we Sizwe, who didn't even know how to hold a gun, and he had this BB gun and he shot a sparrow on the tree in the farmhouse. It died, and he was stricken. He felt miserable. He thought to himself, "Yes, there is some special providence in the fall of a sparrow," and he felt ghastly about it. He is the guy who in prison ... if there was an insect in his cell, he would pick it up and carry it out and put it outside. So there was nothing about him that liked violence. He just saw it as the most expedient way of toppling the government.

A number of people have told us that in those early days ... a 20-year period, from his arrival in Johannesburg to Rivonia ... that he was initially a bit of a country bumpkin, "rustic-ish" is one of the words that we hear. "Country-ish," said one lady in Soweto. Others have told us that, actually, he was just one helluva dandy. Where do you fall on this or was it in fact an evolution from one to the other? ...

One of the things I have discovered about Nelson Mandela is that all statements about him worked both ways. Every positive statement has its negative, every negative statement has its positive. He was a country bumpkin and he was a dandy. He tells these lovely stories about when he first came to Johannesburg and he was incredibly naive ... he had one pair of trousers, and he just kept getting it patched and patched and patched. He was just so embarrassed to actually talk to a girl that he might be attracted to, because he was wearing these horrible hand-me-down clothes.

He tells that lovely story about ordering a piece of meat for the first time in a butcher, which he had never done before, and bringing it home to this little shanty that he was staying in and asking the young girl there to cook it. And she looked at it and laughed, and he said, "Why are you laughing?" She said, "It already is cooked." He didn't know you could even buy cooked meat before. So he was a country bumpkin. But one of the things that happened to him in the city, in the same way that happened to him in the royal village, is in the royal village he looked at the king and realized this is who I empathize with. He looked at the way men of the world dressed and he thought, "Ah, that's the way I want to be."

There is that lovely picture of him just when he first came to Johannesburg and he is wearing this beautiful double-breasted peaked lapel suit that looked like it was handmade for him, and probably was. George Bizos, his long time lawyer tells a lovely story about seeing Nelson Mandela for the first time in this little Indian tailor shop, that he, George, used to go to, getting fitted for a suit. He said, "I had never seen a black man in there before, much less being fitted for a suit." Of course, he looked like a model for these suits. So he became a bit of a dandy. He's a vain man. He knows he's a handsome man. He knows the image that he cuts. He likes fine things. He's incredibly neat about his things, and cares for them. That was the dandy side of him ...

He is a flatterer, isn't he? It's a technique that he has. On one level it is probably entirely natural, but on the other hand he clearly uses it as a method of disarming...

Well, again, it's like everything is both ways with him. It's genuine and it's calculated. So that I'd seen him do things where he'd run into a journalist that he hadn't seen in a long time, and he'd run up to him and say, "Joe, remember me?" and there was something honest about it. He has this combination of great self assurance and some insecurity, which comes from when he was a little boy and when he first went to Johannesburg. So these two things work together. He knows how blandishments ... because in fact he is incredibly susceptible to flattery and compliments himself. It's a kind of unerring missile into him, to flatter him, because it confirms in a way his sense of self-esteem. So he's a master of using it and he is also disarmed by it at the same time.

You say that he has this insecurity. Can you give any other examples to illustrate that point?

I think he, in a strange way, is a kind of hero worshipper ... he even talked about as a small boy, when he was in Qunu, and I remember he told me a story once when we were walking in the hills around the town, and he said this is where the white shop was. And he told a story about when he had come there one day to buy something for his father, and he said to me, "Oh, the white man, the white shopkeeper was like a god to me." Can you imagine hearing Nelson Mandela say that some poor white shopkeeper in the Transkei was like a god to him? But he was being genuine. The insecurity comes from those days. And no one ... not even a god, can not have insecurity raised in that circumstance, where you are automatically treated as something lower than low. So his curious mixture of self-esteem and self-confidence is balanced by some insecurity.

When he first came to the U.S. ... I remember he would come back and say to me, "Richard, I met Elizabeth Taylor today. Can you imagine? I was talking to Elizabeth Taylor." I remember when he met Sophia Loren and he said, "Ooh, we used to watch her movies on Robben Island, and there I was, talking to Sophia Loren." He was awed. And doubtless she was awed with him, but it's a lovely, lovely quality. It's a boyish quality that he's never ever lost ... even now. When he meets Bill Clinton, he adores meeting the president of the United States. He is in awe. It's still that little boy from the Transkei at some level saying, "I am talking to the president of the United States."

Something else that I have seen in him is an awe of intellectuals, of professors ... Is that something that you have noticed?

It's a function of what we were talking about a little bit in terms of flattery, as well. He's very aware that academics are very flattered to be considered important by men of the world like him. So he does do that. At the same time, he thinks these people have a genuine achievement--they have genuinely done something. He was not an intellectual, although he could pass as one, and certainly he's studied quite a lot, but he saw them as having some genuine achievement in the world that he respected. But he also has a kind of disdain a little bit for intellectuals. Men of the ANC often did, that they were not men of action and we are men of action.

Let's move onto the Black Pimpernel phase. One thing that is emerging from what you are saying ... sort of Mandela playing roles, watching and then imitating ... One thing we have heard from people is that there was a certain self conscious modeling on the Chè Guevera/Castro myths. Any thoughts on how that black pimpernel persona came about?

Speaking of acting, I have often thought that there are a lot of similarities between Nelson Mandela and Ronald Reagan. I am reminded of the time that Reagan was asked, maybe even when he was running for president, "How can the president be an actor?" And Reagan replied quite sensibly, "How can the president not be an actor?"

Nelson Mandela as a leader realized the potency of acting, what was important about acting. He's realized it as a boy, in a way. You inhabit a role and you become that thing. And that worked with him in so many ways. So I think he is a fabulous actor, and he realized the role of how to play the role of statesman. How to be contained, when to smile, when not to smile. I mean, he is a dreadful public speaker, isn't he? He speaks so poorly. Yet, he is this charismatic leader. He doesn't have to even open his mouth. His smile and the way he carried himself is what represents him at a leader, almost not what he says at all.

If we look at when he became the Black Pimpernel--he immersed himself in the literature. And remember, the ANC at that time was a leftist organization; it was the era of the uprising against imperialism. He read Castro and Chè Guevera. In fact, there are a lot of parallels between him and Fidel Castro. Both big men, both lawyers, both men from an aristocratic sort of background who had a kind of lover's quarrel with the world, and became revolutionaries. That became the model for him of how to go underground. He grew that scraggly beard. This was a man who loved to shave. Who loves to shave now. He grew that beard and he became so devoted to it--he loved it. He didn't even want to shave it off when he was captured. He loved the idea, he loved the uniforms of being underground. He tells these lovely stories of ... the way he hid himself underground, is that he would often be the chauffeur for a white member of the ANC.

He talks quite lovingly about the '50s black chauffeur's uniform--this kind of one piece overall thing. He used to fold it at night, and put it on in the morning. He loved playing this part. It was so different from any part that he had ever played before. And there is a lovely mischievous side to Nelson Mandela. In a strange way, when he was underground, he was playing cowboys and Indians ... He liked that aspect of it. The little bit of recklessness in him was piqued by this--the close calls, the fact that he would be there in his uniform, in his beard, next to a police station, and they wouldn't know who he was. He was a little bit tickled by that, and that also is what created the image of the Black Pimpernel.

... His celebrated [trip] ... [when] he went over the border. What stands out in that story that you remember which made an impact on you?

His trip was important, particularly in one sense, which is that he went to black Africa for the first time, and he was in countries that were all African. The president was African, the supreme court was African, the taxi drivers were African. He tells this wonderful story of when he was first flying ... and he was alarmed to see that the pilots were black. He had never seen a black pilot before, and he grew up in South Africa ... But what happened was, when he was in Africa, this was a kind of Utopia for him. This was the world that he was trying to create in South Africa, and it spoke to his self-esteem. It spoke to his sense of himself. He was treated almost like royalty wherever he went. He thought, "This is the way the world should be. This is my model." I mean it might not have been as efficient as South Africa, and there might not have been hot and cold running water in different places, but he felt at home, that he had come home in a way that he'd never been before.

What does he say about his visit to London ... that having been a bit of an eye opener too, with all these white folks treating him with some modicum of respect.

Well, I have always thought that he is an Anglophile, and in a way it's hard not to be ... when I was writing about his development--when he was in those prep schools--and I went back and looked at some of the text books that they had. He was reading Macaulay for history when he was a boy. Those are 19th century English text books. He became imbued with Englishness and English language. He told that lovely story to me about the headmaster who said he was descended from the great Duke of Marlborough, and this impressed Nelson. He talked about how, when he was at school and it was during the bombings in London in World War II, they used to listen to the radio of Winston Churchill's speeches, and he said he was mesmerized. This touched him somewhere, because they were English colonialists.

When he first went to London, even back then, he loved seeing the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben and touring around. This was the great world to him. England was the place ... plus there were these English politicians and English leaders who were treating him as a visiting diplomat, as it were. He saw that when he came to London, this place that was the center of the world for him in a way, he was treated as a great man ... as the person who had held the future of Africa in his hand. And he was frankly flattered by it, and he realized this is the way the world should be in my country too.

... Something that you mentioned before ... that in another life Mandela would have been chairman of an English 19th century gentlemen's club.


Talk to me about that side, that English gentleman persona.

Yes, someone once said about him that he is a combination of an African aristocrat and an English gentleman. I think the English gentleman was the beau idéal for him that he had learned as a child, that he had learned from school, and in a strange way because he lived in this bifurcated world--a black world and a white world. In the white world, he was an English gentleman. That was the way to be. That was the best way for an African to be.

In the African world, he was a chief, which isn't that different than being an English gentleman, but you wear a different costume, you speak in a different way and so his Englishness comes from his sense of this is the way a man of the world, in the wider world, in the white world, has to behave. And he is a perfect gentleman.

... on the other hand, he goes to Algeria and does more arms training ... What did he tell you about Algeria, where he actually did get a bit of training ...

Well, as I recall now ... him talking about Algeria. He went through a kind of a basic training camp there with a kind of guerrilla leader. They weren't Algerians. I guess they were maybe French, and it was his first time saying to himself, "Ah, this is what the military life is like. This is what a military man is like. This is the chain of command." Which is something that became very important to him, which he hadn't really known about, but in a way it did dovetail with the chiefly chain of command. He learned a little bit about the theory of being underground, being a revolutionary. He talked a little bit about what he learned from what had been written about in the Anglo-Boer War, and how the Boers basically made headaches for the British, in being underground, and that was what they were trying to copy ...

The Rivonia Trial. You must have talked at some length to him about that. Did he believe that he actually was going to die, and if so, did he ever give any sense, in his theatrical way, perhaps, of how he might actually confront death? ...

One of the things that separates Mandela from other people, and even from the other Rivonia trialists, is that he's an optimist. He's a cockeyed optimist. It's like that Reagan story ... Reagan used to tell of the little boy on Christmas morning who came down and there was a huge pile of manure under the Christmas tree, and he started digging in it, and the mother said, "What are you doing?" And he says, "Well there must be a pony in here somewhere." I mean that's Nelson Mandela--"There must be a pony in here somewhere."

... What happened to him on Robben island, in a way, is that he began to see things in the round, in three dimension. He began to see things that it was both ways. Nobody is all good or all evil. Nobody operates purely out of selfish motives, or purely out of unselfish motives. It gave him a more rounded view of humanity and life.
He never ever really thought that they might be executed. And the little bit of recklessness he used in the final paragraph of the speech, was in part because he thought, "I am thumbing my nose at you. I know you are not going to kill me. I'm indestructible." The reasons that other people wanted him to modulate it, was because they were thinking, "No man, you are not indestructible. They'll hang you like a dog and not think twice about it." But I think that he didn't really ever think that it was going to happen to him.

... Had he been executed, contrary to his naive optimism, what do you think the assessment of him would have been?

Had Nelson Mandela gone to the gallows, as he could easily have, he would be more or less a footnote in ANC history. This man of great potential, a firebrand, passionate advocate who started Umkhonto we Sizwe, the army, and he would be remembered for that. He might even be remembered as a military man, strangely, rather than as a man of peace. Because his career in a strange was, even when he went to prison in '43, it was still the beginning of his life in a way. He still hadn't really matured--a word that he loves to use. I think historians would look at him as a footnote, as a firebrand.

You use the word mature. Is that because during those 27 years in prison, he did indeed mature, and he emerged a different man? ... If you agree with that premise, that he grew--in what sense did he do so most obviously?

Well, that reminds me of an anecdote which is a kind of long windup to answering this question. I remember once when we were walking in the Transkei, and I used to try to do sort of double duty and ask him questions while we were walking, even though he didn't like it. He just wanted to be able to tell stories, and not really work on the book at all. I don't really remember what the question was, [but] I said, "Madiba, is the reason A or is the reason B?" And he looked at me like I'd asked the silliest question in the world and he said, "Richard, why not both?"

There were so many times when I was talking to him and interviewing him, and in effect his answer was, "both." It's never just one reason, or this or that reason. It's always some combination, and what happened to him on the island, in a way, is that he began to see things in the round, in three dimension. He began to see things that it was both ways. Nobody is all good or all evil. Nobody operates purely out of selfish motives, or purely out of unselfish motives. It gave him a more rounded view of humanity and life. That's what maturity is. That, in fact, in some ways, is his maturity. That he sees things from both sides, and that really happened, for all kinds of reasons, on the island. The man, that firebrand as a young man, didn't see things in the round at all. The man who walked out of prison, who says, "I came out mature," saw things from both sides.

... He goes into prison and the world became, literally, constricted. He acquires a sense of limitation, that an act of will cannot translate into a reality. And that sense of limitation must have been part of the process of acquiring this wisdom.

Yes. The whole point, it seemed to me, of the South African prison system and Robben Island, in particular, was to drill into the head of the prisoners, that your world is more constricted now than it has ever been before. When you think about it, a black man growing up in South Africa in the '20s and '30s and '40s, his world is pretty darn constricted as it is, compared to what a human beings life should be. Suddenly, it becomes even more restricted. He tells those stories about how they had to wear short pants when they first came to the island. He hated that. He hated it in particular--why? It's an indignity. I am a boy wearing short pants. I mean anything that smacked of something that was an indignity really spoke to him. So his world became constricted, and, in a way, that allowed him to become bigger, because it gave him self-control. He learned self-control in that tiny little cell.

I remember when I first went to Robben Island, and I had been working with him for some months, and he is a big man in every way. When one of the warders took me to his cell, and opened the door, I gasped when I saw it. There wasn't room for a human being much less Nelson Mandela, this outsized human being. In a strange way that cell modeled him. He learned to live within that cell. He is an incredibly neat man. You often see these people who spent their entire life in the military--they're incredibly neat. A man who spends his adult life in prison often becomes incredibly neat. And he is. When he goes on a trip, I remember ... we'd be in the house, and he'd pull out a box of Kleenex. Right. And he'd take the tissue out of the box. Then he'd lay it on the table and then he'd fold it, like this, in fours and he'd pat it down. Then he'd take another one, and he'd fold it in fours and pat it down. He'd do four or five that way and then he'd put it in his pocket. It took 15 minutes. So, so precise...

I remember once we were going to do an interview and it was in the afternoon, and he gets tired in the afternoon. He was having his nap, and he had this lovely housekeeper ... and she said, "Just go upstairs, Richard." ... I came into his bedroom, and he was having his afternoon nap. He had this great king-size bed. But there he was, in one tiny corner of it ... I'm sure that horrible mattress that he had on Robben Island. The whole rest of the bed was pristine. Completely made, and he was just in this little portion of the bed lying there like this. It was very poignant. He gets out of a bed, and it's made. Because he'll never leave a bed and not make it. But seeing him there like that was just extraordinary. That's the constriction of the world that he had to learn to live in.

I remember when we would do our interviews ... I used a microphone like this, and he has no hand for gadgets or mechanical things for all kinds of good reasons. Plus his hands are so blunt, [they] couldn't even do anything this small. But I remember when he would ask me to put it on him, and I would put it on him every morning or every day. And he would [stand] stock still and not move. Not even be aware that I was so close in there. Because here is a man who didn't even have control of his own body for all these years. That people were doing things to [him]--putting his shirt on, taking his shirt off, being in a space, ordering him. He learned to be still and be contained and control himself. It really was extraordinary. I was always in awe that he would be like this and would pin this little microphone on. He would just go into kind of this Zen state. I just assumed that must have come from the prison experience. That he learned physical self-control too, which he hadn't had before.

I remember asking him about sexuality in prison. And talking to Nelson Mandela and asking him intimate things and personal things--it's really not an easy thing to do ... But I remember asking him about sexuality in prison and sort of gearing up enough courage to do so. He is so unsqueamish. You can't ask a single question to him that he would be squeamish about. This is a man who went to the bathroom for ... 25 years in front of everybody he knew. He had no privacy ... nothing that he did from washing under his arms, that he could ever do in any kind of privacy. He is not the least bit squeamish. So my squeamishness was ridiculous.

So I asked him about his sexuality in prison, and he had this beautiful simple answer ... he said, "We had no avenue of sexual self-expression in prison." Period. Full stop. The perfect and beautiful answer to an incredibly complicated intimate question. But think of the incredible turmoil that one had to get through to get to that point, and give an answer like that. That explains a lot of his self-control--that he got to that point. So that's what molded him. Prison was the crucible that molded his character. That gave him patience, that gave him the ability to see things in the round, that gave him the ability to deal with the enemy, because he was living on intimate terms with the enemy, in a way that he never had before. Because the guards controlled his life and they were intimate inhabitants in the same rats nest. So he had to learn to live with those people.

He learned Afrikaans in prison. This wonderful, precise, very scholarly Afrikaans. He would often, when telling me a story about prison, say something in Afrikaans, a language unfortunately which I don't speak, and then he would take my pad and he'd painstakingly write it out in his big capital letter print. I was looking at my notes before, and this one time when they used the word for "stomach" saying to one of the prisoners, "You will lose that big stomach when you are in here." They used the Afrikaans word for stomach that applies to an animal, not a man. And he was very precise in the way he spelled it out for me, and explained the distinction between the word you use for stomach for a man, and stomach for an animal. That was the way he learned Afrikaans. He wanted to make sure that he understood the language of the enemy. That he could speak it.

page 1 of 2:  click here to go to next page

home + young boy + revolutionary + prisoner + husband & lover + biographers + interviews
synopsis + andecdotes + chronology + discussion + map
tapes tapes & transcripts + transcripts + credits + press + site map + viewers & teachers' guide
frontline + pbs online + wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation