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A new podcast reminds listeners of Mandela's commitment to the Black struggle for freedom

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If I speak the name of Nelson Mandela, what comes to mind? A beloved grandfatherly figure, a globally celebrated statesman, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. To be sure, as South Africa's first Black president, the first elected in a fully representative democratic election, Mandela tried to steer his country to move beyond its violent, racist past. But a new podcast reminds us not just of Mandela's deep humanity but also of his unwavering commitment to the Black struggle for freedom. Here he is recounting how he had successfully dodged security police for nearly a year and a half, only to be caught with a gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MANDELA: THE LOST TAPES")

NELSON MANDELA: I had a revolver which was unlicensed, and I first took it out and put it in between the seats. And at one time, I thought I could open the door fast and roll down, but I didn't know how long, you know, this thing was and what was there.

MARTIN: That's from a new Audible series, "Mandela: The Lost Tapes," where journalist, author and former diplomat Richard Stengel introduces us to the human being behind the icon. Stengel was the ghostwriter of Mandela's 1994 memoir, "Long Walk To Freedom." In preparation for it, he recorded hours and hours of tape with Mandela over the course of more than a year, and we're hearing many of them for the first time. And Richard Stengel is here with us now to talk about that experience. And let me note here that Audible is one of NPR's financial supporters. With that being said, Richard Stengel, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

RICHARD STENGEL: Michel, absolutely. Happy to be with you.

MARTIN: So, first of all, were these tapes lost? Like, where were they? Did you forget that you had them?

STENGEL: Well, they were never lost. When I made them with him in '93, he technically owned them. I mean, the book is his book. And so all of that material then just became archival stuff that nobody really paid attention to anymore. So I thought, you know what? I'm going to see if the Mandela Foundation, which owns them, will license them to me to make a podcast.

MARTIN: I found it astonishing, in a way, to listen to just his ruminations. I mean, he clearly is talking to one person - you. You know? He's not declaiming. He's talking, and it's just very intimate. And it's kind of an emotional experience for me. And I wasn't in the room, but...

STENGEL: Wow.

MARTIN: Was it like that for you?

STENGEL: Well, you put it beautifully that - speaking to one person. I mean, I was that person. And it was just a room with two people in it. And when I started listening to them, I felt very emotional and - because I'm thinking not only about our relationship in that room and how it evolved but also about my own life, and it was 30 years ago. And so it's just this privilege - right? - that everybody in the world now can be in that room with me. And also, you can hear when I messed up a question or when he laughs at something silly or when we laugh together, it does feel extraordinarily intimate.

MARTIN: Did you go into the project with a goal in mind? Like, what were you going for.

STENGEL: When I was signed up to do this - remember, he had been in prison for 27 years. He was only out for about a year and a half. And in fact, because so much was going on in South Africa - they were trying to avert a civil war. They were writing a constitution. They were getting ready for the first Democratic election - the first stuff I asked him about, in case, God forbid, anything happened, was the prison years. So we probably spent a month or six weeks just talking about what had happened during those 27 years in prison.

And then we went back to the beginning, where he talked about, you know, being born in the Transkei and growing up. So I wanted to go through his whole life. He was very keen that also we sort of gave a history of the ANC, the African National Congress, his organization, why we were there, and then kind of made the case of why he should be the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

MARTIN: You encouraged him to talk a lot about how he developed his way of thinking and his way of being and his concept of leadership. And let me just play a clip from here. This is where he describes his younger self before he was imprisoned. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MANDELA: THE LOST TAPES")

MANDELA: I have mellowed. As a young man, you know, I was very radical, using high-flown language, fighting everybody.

STENGEL: Yes. So I asked him many times what seems like a simple question. How did that 42-year-old man who went to prison in 1964 emerge as a global statesman at the age of 72? What changed? How did you evolve? And so he would say all the time, well, I didn't evolve. My thinking was the same. And then one day when I asked him that question, he kind of paused, and he said, I came out mature, that I can say. That meant to be that you had self-control, that you were disciplined, you weren't temperamental. You didn't use, as he say, high-flown language, you know. I do think those prison years were a kind of crucible that melted away all the impurities in his personality and made him this very mature, calm, self-disciplined 72-year-old who came out when he came out of prison.

MARTIN: Many people have remarked in the intervening years that it could have just made him bitter, angry and desirous of revenge but it didn't.

STENGEL: From the moment he went into prison, he saw prison as a way that he would figure out how to bring South Africa together, how to govern South Africa, how to reconcile this racial disparity and the white supremacist government. And part of what he - the realization was - is that he couldn't come out and seem bitter if he wanted to reconcile the country. And I spent so much time with him. And I would be lying if I said I didn't sometimes see bitterness or anger. But he had incredible discipline about never letting that show.

MARTIN: It's very interesting how we are sort of willing to reduce these very complicated figures to the Black History Month calendar version of themselves. I'm thinking about like, you know, Martin Luther King. And they're just lovely grandpas, lovely people who just never got mad. He was a very sophisticated thinker.

STENGEL: Yes. And one of the things that we tried to do in the podcast is get away from this cliche image of him as this sort of white-haired Santa Claus figure. I mean, he decided and realized that the ANC, which had always been an organization that embraced nonviolence, that it was no longer working because the government was responding with violence. You hear him talk about that calculation where he said, for me, unlike Gandhi, nonviolence was a tactic, not a principle. And for me, when a tactic isn't working, you abandon it.

So it's a very sophisticated rationalization for it. And again, it went against all of his instincts. He's an incredibly sort of peaceful man. But he realized that the only way that they could achieve their struggle, which is democracy for Black South Africans and free and fair elections, was they had to embrace this policy of violence. But the fact that they were willing to do that was ultimately the thing that brought the government to the table to negotiate.

MARTIN: But you also say that you kind of helped create some of the myths of Mandela. What are you talking about here? And is there something that you really want to correct at this point?

STENGEL: Well, it's a good question. It's hard to talk about, and I do talk about it in the podcast. And, you know, I was a white American 30 years younger than he was. I didn't know much about not only his history, but the history of the Thembu people and the Xhosa-speaking people that he was from, from the area of the Eastern Cape. So I actually think that I wasn't able to do that the kind of justice that I should have. But I think there's a truth to the fact that a lot of African history has been filtered through the West, through Western historians, white historians. And I do think the ultimate biography of Nelson Mandela is still yet to be written, and that will be written by a Black South African. And I helped him tell the story that he wanted told. He was running for president at the time. He was sensitive to anything that would cast a shadow on him, although he said all the time, I'm mortal. I have flaws. But there is a, you know, a heroic mythology. And by the way, he was a genuine hero.

MARTIN: Well, you emerged with some powerful and just really profound story. So thank you for that. Thank you for rediscovering those tapes and sharing them with us. That was Richard Stengel. He's a journalist and an author. He was the ghostwriter of "Long Walk To Freedom," and he has a new Audible podcast series based on the tapes that he recorded for the book. It's called "Mandela: The Lost Tapes," and it's out now. Richard Stengel, thank you so much for joining us.

STENGEL: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.