Former NPR Correspondent Remembers Working For Mandela

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NPR's former South Africa correspondent John Matisonn worked for Nelson Mandela, helping the leader improve his media savvy after he was released from prison on Robben Island. Matisonn remembers Mandela's keen intelligence and resilience. Matisonn tells Robert Siegel the Nobel Peace Prize recipient emphasized that he was an ordinary man, and insisted he was no saint.


NPR's former longtime correspondent in South Africa, John Mattison, knew Nelson Mandela. He covered him and later, he actually worked for him. He's just outside Cape Town and joins us now. John, tell me what your most vivid memory of this great, historic figure is.

JOHN MATTISON: Well, you know, he asked me to teach him and his future Cabinet colleagues how to handle TV and radio. And we had some private moments during that time. And on the formal side, he was the most keen student of everyone. I mean, he was the oldest there - or one of the oldest, and hadn't seen TV all his time in prison, and there wasn't a TV in South Africa before he went to prison, and yet he took it very seriously.

And then I - and he insisted his colleagues do so, too. And he listened and he learned; he really learned. And in the private moments when I talked to him, one of the things he did say to me was, you know, this talk of him not being bitter was not entirely true. Of course, he was bitter. It's just that he was more determined than his bitterness to achieve the result. He was very, very focused. He knew he had to achieve something, and he was going to achieve it.

SIEGEL: You once told me that Mandela, even as he was being canonized by world opinion, said - and told you, I'm not a saint.

MATTISON: Yes. I had personal experience of the fact that he wasn't a saint - (Laughter) - because I have seen him angry, and it was not something you wanted to be at the receiving end of. It wasn't with me, fortunately. But he - you know, he was very keen for everybody to understand that he was an ordinary person, he wasn't acting alone; and he actually wasn't acting alone. There were many people he worked with and who coordinated and believed in the things he did.

But yes, he wanted to be seen as ordinary. He wanted to be seen as someone who made mistakes. And one of the really important things he did was, early on in his presidency, there was a question of, could he be called before the court to answer, as a witness, in a case that affected him? And he insisted, yes, I must do that. A president is not above the law. And that was intended as a message.

SIEGEL: How do you intend to mark the death of Mandela?

MATTISON: Well, I don't know. You know, it happened very late at night; and people are just on the phones, and texting, and Skyping, and emailing; and we're thinking about it. I think people will come together tomorrow in all the towns. I have to decide if I go up to Johannesburg for the funeral. I'd like to do that. I'm waiting for the news.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, John.

MATTISON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's John Mattison, our former correspondent in South Africa. John is working on a new book about South Africa. He spoke to us from outside Cape Town.

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