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Dec 2, 2022
In revelatory tapes that have never been heard before, journalist Richard Stengel probes Mandela’s political pragmatism and public sainthood South African president Nelson Mandela escorts Diana, Princess of Wales in Cape Town in 1997. Photograph: Sasa Kralj/AP South African president Nelson Mandela escorts Diana, Princess of Wales in Cape Town in 1997. Photograph: Sasa Kralj/AP Last modified on Fri 2 Dec 2022 02.17 EST Knowing him to be stickler for punctuality, American journalist Richard Stengel was never late for his meetings with Nelson Mandela. Well, just once. That was the day he woke up at home in Johannesburg to find that he had been robbed. Three hours of taped interviews with South Africa’s liberation hero had vanished during the night. “I got there a little bit late and told him I’d been robbed, and I was upset three hours of tapes were stolen, so who knows what was going to happen to them,” Stengel, 67, recalls in an interview by phone this week from his apartment in New York. He adds of Mandela: “In that lovely way he had, he was just concerned for my safety. He didn’t care about anything else. It was very sweet.” Fortunately the stolen tapes were just a fraction of more than 60 hours that Stengel, ghostwriting Mandela’s memoir, recorded over nearly two years, with the help of a chunky Sony cassette player and small microphone clipped to the anti-apartheid leader’s lapel or shirt collar. The result was Long Walk to Freedom, published in 1994 to commercial success and critical acclaim; the Financial Times had said “their collaboration produced surely one of the great autobiographies of the 20th century”. The tapes then lay forgotten in storage for decades. Now they are being made public for the first time. Mandela: The Lost Tapes is a 10-part podcast that launched this week in which Stengel explores his rare relationship with the activist who spent 27 years in prison under white minority rule. The Audible Original series is also an absorbing study in the craft of interviewing: the verbal nudges, deflected questions, tantalising details – and a quest to unlock the secret of Mandela’s greatness. Stengel had never listened to the tapes before and had largely worked from transcripts. He tells the Guardian: “Part of the thing about sound and audio is that it’s very intimate. Suddenly I was back in that room from 30 years ago that no other person in the world had ever been in except the two of us. His voice is so strong, and [it] came back. When I was listening to myself ask a question, I could remember what I was thinking when I asked the question. I could hear sometimes the frustration in my voice. Nelson Mandela. Photograph: Media24/Gallo Images/Getty Images “For the most part I was pleasantly surprised about how buttoned up I was about the questions but there were times when, ‘Yeah, I really should have asked a follow-up question here. That answer wasn’t good enough. Why did I let it go? Or I should have asked x.’ But I knew I had a limited amount of time, I had ground to cover. I wasn’t as embarrassed as I thought I would be about listening to my 30-year younger self.” Stengel had gone to South Africa in the mid-1980s and worked for Rolling Stone and Time magazines. He wrote a book, January Sun , about a rural town where the white authorities were trying to forcibly remove a black township, and was tapped to ghostwrite Mandela’s memoir at the end of 1992. He was little more than half the age of his revered subject, whom he had never met. “I wasn’t a terribly mature 37-year-old and he had this traditional respect and veneration for age, and so I could tell he was disappointed when he first saw me. He said: ‘You’re a young man,’ and that wasn’t praise. I had to earn my way into his good graces because I wasn’t old. I wasn’t married, I didn’t have a girlfriend, I was footloose and fancy free.” His first impression of Mandela was physical. “You don’t think about what a large man he was. He’s about six foot two and his head is big and his shoulders are big and his hands are big. There’s a reason throughout history that size and leadership go together, and he’s just a very impressive statue of a man and he’s incredibly handsome and his skin is beautiful.” The pair would usually meet at 6.30 or 7am in Mandela’s office at the African National Congress (ANC) headquarters in the city, his suburban home or, on occasion, his home in the Transkei, the rural area where he grew up. They held hour-long conversations two, three or four times a week, even though Mandela was working on a new South African constitution and preparing to run for president. The lawyer and activist was unfailingly gracious but also a tricky interviewee, guarded and reluctant to open up, like a canny politician. In the podcast’s first episode, for example, Stengel repeatedly tries to get Mandela to analyse how prison changed him but Mandela, a keen boxer in his youth, ducks and weaves. The journalist recalls: “He was always a little suspicious. He knew what wasn’t going to sound good and what was, so everything went through that filter. He wasn’t introspective and whether that was because he thought it would appear weak or he really wasn’t, I’ll never know. “I explained to him what the term ‘colour’ is in a book or an article – ‘I need some anecdotes, I need some emotion’ – and he was allergic to colour. I had to try to prise that out of him. He didn’t get down with the concept, as it were. He used to say: ‘Well, you Americans want that,’ and I would say: ‘Madiba [his clan name], everybody wants that!’ “We had a back and forth about his first wife, Evelyn, where he goes, ‘No, I’m not talking about that.’ I said: ‘Madiba, we’ve got to talk about it, she’s your first wife.’ ‘No, I’m not talking about it.’It’s not easy to argue with Nelson Mandela , I discovered, as many other people have discovered. So part of my job was to punch up the colour, as it were. “He was a difficult interview always, except when he was talking about something that he was happy to talk about and then his memory was extraordinary, and I felt like he was reliving the scenes. Like the story where he talks about the British headmaster of his school and he does the imitation of Mr Wellington’s speech at assembly. Then he’ll go on in great detail and that’s lovely. That was just gold for the book but that was probably the exception rather than the rule.” Whereas another liberation struggle leader, Robert Mugabe of neighbouring Zimbabwe , became consumed by bitterness, Mandela has been hailed as an apostle of reconciliation. Despite the horrors of apartheid and his long incarceration, he insisted on his public vision of South Africa as a multiracial democracy and “rainbow nation”, exemplified by his high-profile embrace of rugby, a traditionally white sport in South Africa, when the country hosted and won the post-apartheid 1995 World Cup, after decades of international sporting protests and boycotts . The Nobel peace prize winner has been elevated by some to saint-like status but Stengel believes that Mandela was motivated by a steely pragmatism. “He was wounded by what happened to him and his family and was bitter about it, but he made a decision early on, even before he came out of prison, that for purposes of reconciliation he could never for one moment show that he was bitter. I heard him make remarks to me in private a few times about some of his jailers that suggested he didn’t think all that highly of them and he understood the public relations nature of it. “Part of his relentless self-discipline was that he never ever showed for one moment that he was bitter but, if you could go inside his head and his heart, I think he was. The most important thing to him was seeing freedom for his people and reconciliation and having a successful country; anything that got in the way of that, he just relegated to the side. That’s something he never showed and I just got occasional glimpses of it,” Stengel said. Some South Africans, especially among the “born-free” post-apartheid generation, debate whether, in fact, Mandela made too many concessions, “ selling out ” Black interests for the sake of perceived stability. Stengel contends that Mandela was “a cautious revolutionary” dealing with many unknowns in the early 1990s. “It’s easy in retrospect to say he was too moderate or he spent more time placating whites than uplifting blacks. I think he had real concerns that the whole thing could turn into a bloody racial civil war and he wanted to avoid that at all costs,” Stengel said.
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DIANA's latest funding round is Option/Warrant.
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