Mandela Friend Pens Authorized Biography

Farai Chideya talks with Mac Maharaj, who served 12 years in prison with Nelson Mandela. Maharaj is one of two editorial consultants on the new book Mandela — The Authorized Portrait and is also a board member of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now we hear another perspective on the continent and on one of its political heroes. Last week Nelson Mandela received Amnesty International's 2006 Ambassador of Conscience Award for being, quote, “a moral beacon in a world plagued by human rights abuses.” The award was presented to Mandela the day after the death of former South African President P.W. Botha.

We spoke recently one of the men who knows Nelson Mandela best.

Mr. MAC MAHARAJ (Consultant, Mandela: The Authorized Portrait): My name is Mac Maharaj. I'm from South Africa. I have been involved in the struggle against apartheid throughout my adult life and I served 12 years in prison with Nelson Mandela. And that has been one of my claims to fame.

CHIDEYA: Mac Maharaj was a member of Mandela's inner circle. He's a co-contributor to the new book Mandela: The Authorized Portrait. Mr. Maharaj joins me here at NPR West. Welcome.

Mr. MAHARAJ: Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: I've had the pleasure to visit your country and also the pleasure of meeting President Mandela. But you knew him well before he was President Mandela. How did you first come to meet?

Mr. MAHARAJ: We first really got to know each other face-to-face when I got to prison in January 1965. He'd already been in prison and I had just been sentenced in December to 12 years. We lived together in the same section of the prison where about 30 other prisoners together with Mandela were kept throughout the period that I was there.

CHIDEYA: How did he impress you?

Mr. MAHARAJ: I think Mandela has this enormous quality of making you feel warm and embraced by him. At the same time, it takes a bit of time to get really close to him. I think he also brings with a strength that you begin to feel that here you are dealing with a human being who is not afraid of admitting his faults and his foibles. And therefore you see possibilities in him that you could like to recognize in yourself.

CHIDEYA: Looking back on those days when you were in prison, was there unity between the Asian cause and the African cause in South Africa?

Mr. MAHARAJ: Our leaders who proceeded us had done a remarkable job of taking a society where black people were differentiated in their treatment on the basis of whether you were Africa, mixed blood colored or of Indian origin and treated them slightly differently. And yet our leaders had worked and brought the communities together in a common struggle.

And so when we went to prison there was no question in our minds that we were working for the respect of all cultures and languages but in the context of a non-racial, non-sexist democracy.

CHIDEYA: Bishop Desmond Tutu recently said that he thought South Africa was actually moving away from that kind of unity that sustained it during apartheid. And I can't help but think of the death of P.W. Botha, who led South Africa during I guess the last of the heyday of apartheid.

So you say that South Africa is still moving forward. What are the challenges that the nation faces?

Mr. MAHARAJ: I think the real issue is whether - Bishop Tutu - which type of curve we are looking at. I think he's right when he's looking at the immediate and telling us be careful. But when I'm looking at the long curve, I think we are doing exceptionally well.

So what are the challenges? I think they remain to create a common sense of identity among South Africans of diverse cultures, languages and religions. I think they remain about making sure that our children and children to come will truly live in an equal society in the sense that they have equal opportunities to develop their potential. These are some of the challenges.

But they're not only specific to South Africa. They are some of the challenges that make our world today unstable.

CHIDEYA: I would certainly agree with that. And looking at Nelson Mandela as he stepped out of prison, I want you to compare your feelings when Nelson Mandela stepped out of prison to your feelings when he stepped out of office.

Mr. MAHARAJ: I think his stepping out of prison is an image that will never disappear in my mind's eye. And I've looked at that photograph with him holding up Winnie's hand and walking out a bit surprised by the large crowds, faintly smiling, not triumphant. And I realized to me that moment was full of the sense, we're now walking into a new territory of struggle. Will we be able to do it? It's an enormous responsibility that he has taken on to settle the conflict by negotiations.

His retirement from power: I think he was a reluctant president. He would have been happier if he did not to even serve one term. And he was very clear that it would be one term and one term alone from his own personal (unintelligible). I think he became stronger when he looked at the world in our continent and the need for us to understand that despite the enormous advance of democracy, holding power has a special characteristic.

And therefore one of the key issues is how you wear that power, and I think the important thing that he brought there is that he wore it with grace. But secondly, he understood something more profound when we look back. That when he decided to step down - and by stepping down he actually acquired more power to influence us and to influence the world than he would have just remaining in that seat of power.

CHIDEYA: What have you learned about the power that makes you who you are and able to do the things that you've done?

Mr. MAHARAJ: I think that I've had a very privileged life to share that time in prison and to be mentored by people like Mandela and Sisulu and (unintelligible). It taught me not to dwell in the past by making it an excuse for my inaction or inabilities.

(Unintelligible) as Mandela says at the conclusion of his long walk, which I smuggled out, he says I can just stop here for a moment and look back. Because with freedom comes responsibility, and I have another mountain to climb.

CHIDEYA: Mac Maharaj, thank you so much.

Mr. MAHARAJ: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Mac Maharaj served 12 years in prison with Nelson Mandela on Robin Island. He's a board member of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and was one of two editorial consultants on Mandela: The Authorized Portrait.

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Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. Thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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