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Mandela's Biographer Remembers Mandela, The Statesman


Richard Stengel was Nelson Mandela's friend and collaborator. He co-wrote his autobiography, called "Long Walk to Freedom"; and he wrote his own book after the experience, called "Mandela's Way: Lessons on Life, Love and Courage." Mr. Stengel joins us now, on the line from New York. Welcome to the program.

RICHARD STENGEL: Thank you. Nice to be here.

MARTIN: So I have heard you say in interviews - in fact, you begin your book by saying - Mandela isn't a saint, and he wouldn't want to be called a secular saint. What do you think has been missing from a more complete picture of this man?

STENGEL: I think we tend to not only glorify people, we defang them sometimes. I mean, and because the fact that Mandela became this white-haired, smiling old man made people forget the courageous freedom fighter, and revolutionary and tempestuous young man who started the ANC youth wing, and started Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. I mean, he was a fierce fighter and revolutionary, and he never lost sight of that himself. That always was part of his self-image. And he knew when he came out of prison, he couldn't seem that way anymore. But that was part of who he was.

MARTIN: What helped him make that transition from this young, hot-headed revolutionary to someone who was willing and capable and negotiating with the government? Was it philosophical, was it a practical bent? What was it about him that helped him navigate that?

STENGEL: Well, I have a one-word answer to that: prison. The 27 years that he spent in prison were a crucible that steeled him and that gave him immense self-control, even self-confidence, because he had survived it. And the fact that that tempestuous fellow went into prison was nowhere to be seen when he came out was part of the calculus that Mandela made; that he needed to become that person in order to become a leader of a non-racial, democratic South Africa.

MARTIN: He was, by most counts, a very successful politician. What kinds of decisions did he make that illustrate that? I mean, we think of him as this idealist but he was a pragmatist, wasn't he?

STENGEL: Yes, I think he was immensely practical. I've always said that he had one principle, and that principle was freedom for his people and justice for his people. Otherwise, everything else was a tactic and service to that principle. And he changed his mind many times during his life and career. You know, he always used to say: When circumstances change, I change my mind. So I think he was just an enormously successful and able politician that everybody could learn from. And he didn't think of that as a dirty word.

And so you ask about some examples of that. I mean, one gigantic example is when he came out of prison, he was still faithful to the ANC ideal of nationalizing the minds, for example. Well, he came out into a different world than the world he went into. There was no - you know, the Berlin Wall had fallen. He went into prison in a Cold War world, and he emerged in a post-Cold War world. And so many of his colleagues were communists and socialists. Basically, he realized pretty quickly, wow, we can't do this anymore. This is not how the world works, and this is not the road to prosperity for South Africa. So he did 180-degree turn on that.

MARTIN: You say he regarded non-violence as a tactic, not a principle. Can you explain what that means?

STENGEL: Yes. I mean - and it took me a while to get this, and I remember being sort of thunderstruck when he was telling me this, in part because I think so many people think of non-violence as a principle you cannot deviate from. And he just didn't agree with that. He grew up in a South Africa that had been influenced by Gandhi's years as a young lawyer in South Africa and starting the non-violence movement. He embraced it, too. But what he realized, as a young member of the ANC going up against this authoritarian, monolithic government, was that non-violence wasn't working. And his goal was one vote, one man for his whole country and democracy. ]>

MARTIN: Where did he fall short as a politician, do you think?

STENGEL: Well, politicians are not known for admitting to any shortcomings, but he wasn't your ordinary politician. One of the things he did say to me was he felt, I think, that he had not caught on and understood the implications of HIV and AIDS for South Africa and Africa. And it was a hard thing for him to understand. I mean, in many ways, not only a 20th century man - I mean, he was a 19th century man. And I think he regretted not having been more active on that front, particularly when his successor, Thabo Mbeki, seemed to take the country even further into the dark ages on that issue.

MARTIN: You had a quite unique relationship with Nelson Mandela. You helped him write his autobiography; that's a very intimate kind of process. You got to know each other, and you called each other friends. I understand he's the godfather to your son. I wonder if there's a story, or a particular memory, that you could share, something that stays with you about him.

STENGEL: Well, his first collection of his speeches was called "The Struggle is My Life." And I used to say to him: The struggle may be your life, but your life is my struggle. And he was lovely to be around. I mean, he was a happy warrior. He was sunny. And actually, speaking of my older son, when we told him that my wife was pregnant, I said to him - as a joke - if it's a boy, we're going to call him Rolihlahla. Rolihlahla is Nelson Mandela's real first name. It's virtually unpronounceable, and it's certainly unspellable.

On the phone, he was silent. I thought, oh my God, have I mispronounced this? Have I insulted him - this white American, you know, naming his son Rolihlahla? And I said, would you like to speak to Mary? And he took his phone, and I could hear his bellowing voice from the phone saying, I cannot wait to see you and the little Rolihlahla.

And so when my son Gabriel was first born, we thought, man, we just can't give him that name as his first name, but it is his middle name.

MARTIN: Richard Stengel - he is the former managing editor of Time magazine, and the author of "Mandela's Way: Lesson on Life, Love and Courage." Mr. Stengel, thanks so much for taking the time.

STENGEL: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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