Nelson Mandela's Aim: Inspire Mirth With Words

Former president Nelson Mandela, second from left center, and his extended family members celebrate his 93rd birthday in Qunu, South Africa, Monday July 18, 2011. i i

Former president Nelson Mandela, second from left center, and his extended family members celebrate his 93rd birthday in Qunu, South Africa, Monday July 18, 2011. Peter Morey/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Morey/AP
Former president Nelson Mandela, second from left center, and his extended family members celebrate his 93rd birthday in Qunu, South Africa, Monday July 18, 2011.

Former president Nelson Mandela, second from left center, and his extended family members celebrate his 93rd birthday in Qunu, South Africa, Monday July 18, 2011.

Peter Morey/AP

Today's 93rd birthday of the former South African President and anti-apartheid icon comes with the release of Nelson Mandela By Himself: The Authorized Book of Quotations. Host Michel Martin speaks with the book's editors Sello Hatang and Sahm Venter about Mandela's legacy, and that many of the quotes the public likes to use are not actually from Mandela.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're going to dig into the pages of The Washington Post magazine in a few minutes, something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now.

But first, along with much of the world, we are celebrating today, the birthday of a world figure, former South African president Nelson Mandela. He is 93 today. Nelson Mandela has been a living symbol of the fight for freedom and justice, both in his native South Africa and around the world. You probably know this story, but just in case.

After serving 27 years in prison for his role as a freedom fighter against apartheid, this former lawyer became the first democratically elected and first black president of South Africa just four years after leaving prison.

To mark his birthday we will hear from him. His new book "Nelson Mandela By Himself: The Authorized Book of Quotations" is out today. It has more than 2,000 of his original quotations like these final words from his 1964 trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIAL)

NELSON MANDELA: I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an idea for which I hope to live for. But my lord, if it need be, it is an idea for which I am prepared to die.

MARTIN: Those words from a four-and-a-half hour statement at the trial did not set him free at the time, but they did capture one of the most monumental moments in the history of the struggle against apartheid.

Other words from events as monumental are also in the book. Editors Sello Hatang and Sahm Venter spent years verifying the quotes and compiling the book, and they are both with us now from Johannesburg, South Africa. Thank you so much, both of you, for joining us. And congratulations on this monumental work.

SELLO HATANG: Thank you for the opportunity.

SAHM VENTER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And, Sahm, in the introduction of the book you both wrote Nelson Mandela is one of the most quoted and misquoted people in the world. How so?

VENTER: Well, a lot of people find quotations, mainly off the Internet, because they all want to quote him, and we found over the years that many of the quotes that members of the public like to use are not actually from him.

MARTIN: And, Sello, how did you go about documenting all of this?

HATANG: It started off with us responding to queries. And over time, we collected these, what you'd call maybe iconic quotations. So people would say, can you verify that this is a quote of Nelson Mandela? So we went through that process and out of that we made a collection of these quotations. So verifying the quotations went through the tapes, some video, some audio interviews that he did, some speeches that he wrote.

And, of course, at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, we have the pleasure and the honor of having Madiba's original handwritten material. And so, we looked at some of the handwritten material to confirm that some of those quotes were his quotations.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you if each of you has a favorite quote. And I'd also like to ask each of you, is there a quote that is so often misquoted that you simply have to set it straight right now? That people think it's true, but it just isn't true. Sahm, why don't you start?

VENTER: OK. Well, we'll start with the second one. There is a quote that everybody likes to use, which begins: Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. And the closing words are, as we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. Now, a lot of people think this is Nelson Mandela, which, in fact, it's not. It's a U.S. writer, Marianne Williamson. And it comes from her book "Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles." So that was one of the big things we wanted to set straight. It's not his words.

MARTIN: I didn't know that either.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Thank you for setting me straight. I better take that out of my computer.

VENTER: I think - well, there's sort of more than 2,000 quotations in this book for you to choose from.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. No, I got to call somebody right now and tell them to take that off my wall and at least attribute it properly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So, Sello, what about you? Is there another misquote that you want to tell us about?

HATANG: I think that one is what we tend to get a lot of. And, in fact, at least with you, it's up on your computer - it's something that you can delete. There are people who, we know of someone that decided to make a tattoo out of it. So you can imagine after going through that painful process of having a tattoo on your body and then you find out that actually that's not a Nelson Mandela quotation and you thought to yourself, this is it. So with you at least you're just going to go to your computer and say, just remove that thing. So it should be easy to do. So for...

MARTIN: You do, in fact, know people who have that tattooed and misattributed?

VENTER: We read about a football player, soccer player, who had it tattooed on his leg - and it's 47 words long.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: It is something. Well, how about each of you, is there a favorite quote? Does each of you have a favorite quote? Sello, do you want to start?

VENTER: Yeah. Mine is: It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.

And for me this quotation reminds that I need to sometimes listen more than I speak, because I tend to speak more than I listen to others. And hence the Centre of Memory does that. It's saying to people, let's engage more. Let's talk more and listen to each other. Be careful of the words that we use because those can lead to people even dying.

MARTIN: Thank you for that. Sahm, what about you? Did you have a favorite?

VENTER: Well, actually, it's very hard to choose, so I've got two. And they're both short so it makes up for Sello's long one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VENTER: This one is: We pass through this world but once and the opportunities you miss will never be available to you again. I just think that's so profound. And the other one is: I believe in surrounding myself with strong characters who will tell me when I'm wrong.

And, you know, so often we have people around us and other people in power who don't like that. They like surrounding themselves with people who agree with them all the time and subsequently don't learn anything new. So this is very characteristic of Mr. Mandela.

MARTIN: Let me ask you a tough question, if I may, as someone who has now lived with these words for some time. What is it you think is so powerful about it now that you've spent so much time living with his words?

HATANG: For me, how he writes - he writes beautifully, but it's also things that you sometimes don't even come to think about. You read what he's written and you realize, oh, but you know, that's how we should actually be doing things. So, but how he pens it together, he puts it so nicely that even you then come to realize that that's something that we should be doing.

MARTIN: I'm just wondering if Joe Smith were to say the same thing, would it be the same - have the same beauty and power?

VENTER: You know, I think that it does help that we know the back story. We know what's happened to him. But, you know, the more you're around him or you have been in the past, you realize that he uses every opportunity, actually, to impart advice, wisdom. There's very little small talk, you know. I think when he's not sort of trying to give you a story about his life or something he's learned, he's trying to make you laugh.

MARTIN: Sahm Venter is a senior researcher for the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. Sello Hatang is the spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. They are the editors of "Nelson Mandela By Himself: The Authorized Book of Quotations." It is out today, his 93rd birthday. And they were both kind enough to join us from Johannesburg. Thank you both so much. And would you please convey our program's best birthday wishes to President Mandela Madiba?

HATANG: Thank you very much, and we will.

VENTER: Thank you, we will.

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