NEAL CONAN, host:
When TIME editor Richard Stengel collaborated with Nelson Mandela on his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," he spent nearly three years traveling with the South African president, tying his shoes, straightening his tie, collecting hours and hours of conversation. Mandela let him inside his life, his thoughts and a little bit of his heart.
Now, Stengel writes about what he learned from Mandela in those days in a new book, "Mandela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love and Courage." If you have questions about how the great man learned to become the great man, our phone number is 800-989-8255; email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Richard Stengel now joins us from CNN's Radio Studios in New York City. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. RICHARD STENGEL (Editor, TIME Magazine): Great to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And many of us would describe Nelson Mandela as a secular saint. But you begin this book by saying he himself would not agree with that. And you also agree that it's not false modesty.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. STENGEL: Yes. He doesn't want to be depicted as a saint. He always talked about how flawed he was as a human being. He didn't want to be up on a pedestal where people thought that he was perfect. And one of things that I wanted to do in the book is there's been a kind of Santa Claus-ification of Nelson Mandela, this kindly, white-haired old man who brought freedom to his people. But he was, you know, he's a very, very tough guy. He started the military wing of the ANC when he was a young man. He was a hot-headed, tempestuous revolutionary. He was, you know, he was considered a terrorist by the West before he went into prison.
So it's I just wanted to kind of present a full picture of him. And in fact, his greatness comes from the fact that he does have flaws, not that he's flawless.
CONAN: Indeed. You quote his one-time law partner, Oliver Tambo, who would become head of the ANC after Mandela went to prison, "as a man, Nelson Mandela is passionate, emotional, sensitive, quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage."
Mr. STENGEL: I know. It's kind of amazing, isn't it, Neal? I mean, that isn't the Nelson Mandela we know. That isn't the Nelson Mandela that walked out of prison in 1990. And that, in many ways, the theme of my whole book and the theme of, you know, sort of my quest with working with him on his autobiography is, what happened? What changed that young, hotheaded man that Oliver Tambo wrote about, into this measured, calm, always, you know, civil, forgiving person who emerged in 1990 and helped reconcile white and black in South Africa? That's, in some way, is the great mystery.
CONAN: And the greatest of his teachers, you suggest, was prison.
Mr. STENGEL: Yes. Because prison changed that young man, and it burned away a lot of the extraneous parts of his character. And again, part of it was through his own self-analysis, but part of it is through this imposed control that prison has on you. I mean, the only thing you could control when you were in prison for all those years was yourself.
I mean, I remember when I first went to his cell in Robben Island. And I walked in, I walked - nearly walked in, but I gasped when I saw it, because - I mean, Nelson Mandela, as you know, is a big man. He's 6'2" inches tall, he has big hands and a big head. And he is larger than life in a literally and figurative way.
And this prison cell - I mean, he couldn't even lie down and stretch out his legs. I mean, it could barely contain him. But what he learned and what he taught himself was how to contain himself, how to practice the self control that he actually didn't have before he went into prison.
CONAN: And there is an episode in the book that happens - well, not so much - it's odd - a problem with his prostate lead to perhaps the great breakthrough that - you describe this in the chapter where you say the lesson is to lead from the front. He was in a cell with four other leaders of the ANC, but then after he went to the hospital, comes back to find him in a cell by himself and realizes this is both a message and an opportunity.
Mr. STENGEL: Yes. I mean, basically, when he went back, that was then Pollsmoor Prison, which is where he was after Robben Island. And after his surgery, they moved him back into a cell by himself. And he had -you know, he actually - he - one of the secrets of what kept his body and soul together is that he - they kept him with his prison mates who he was sentenced to life in prison with. And they consoled each other.
And suddenly, he was in a cell by himself and he had a kind of revelation, which was that the military struggle that the ANC had been practicing all these years, would never really overthrow the white apartheid government of South Africa. And given that, why didn't they start negotiations? And this was against all of the ANC policy, which was then headed, as you mentioned, by Oliver Tambo. But he, on his own, decided, you know what, I'm going to start negotiations with the government. And it was an incredibly bold thing to do. And by the way, it also got him in trouble with his colleagues, some of whom felt that he was betraying the movement.
CONAN: And indeed, there were a lot of people that way. Nevertheless, he did go ahead, start those negotiations and of course, at some time, he had to then tell his colleagues what he was doing.
Mr. STENGEL: Yes, and he, you know, he chuckled as he told me the story of telling his colleagues because there were four of them and two of them said, you know, why didn't you start earlier? And two of them said, you know, how (unintelligible)...
Mr. STENGEL: Yes. Very bad idea. What are you doing?
CONAN: Because this was the fundamental key question the ANC had argued all along, no, no, no, we can never have negotiations until we are treated as equals, indeed until all those political prisoners are let go.
Mr. STENGEL: Exactly. In fact, you know, there was a moment when the white government offered him his release. This is long before 1990 and the '80s. If he renounced the military struggle, and he famously did not, and one of his daughters read his remarks at a speech in Soweto that said, you know, had that famous line that only free men can negotiate. And that's the basis in which he rejected being released from prison early.
CONAN: We're talking with Richard Stengel, editor of Time Magazine, about his book "Mandela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage," basically notes that he kept or taken from notes that he kept while he spent time with Nelson Mandela as they collaborated on his autobiography.
If you'd like to ask about how the great man became the great man, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let's go to Jesse(ph). Jesse with us from Hartford in Connecticut.
JESSE: Hello, Neal. How are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
JESSE: Good. I am curious to know that your guest can comment with South Africa is coming into the international spotlight with the upcoming FIFA games in 2010.
CONAN: The World Cup, yes.
JESSE: Correct. Correct. What is the legacy that is left behind and sort of what will be the discussion as the world is sort of refocused on South Africa once again? What is the legacy that people will be discussing?
CONAN: Richard Stengel?
Mr. STENGEL: Yes. Jesse, it's a good and fair question. And - I mean, there really - there wouldn't be a World Cup in South Africa this year if the legacy of Nelson Mandela wasn't the fact that he united the country. He prevented what he thought was possibly imminent, which was a civil war between, you know, white conservatives and black freedom fighters. And he felt the country was really on the knife edge of a civil war when he got out. And it was basically his great achievement that he united the country, that he basically said, you know, to the South African whites, hey, let's keep the past behind us. He said to the, you know, to the great rank and file of his own voters, you know, let's be patient and let's move together. We - you know, this is a great rainbow nation of all different colors and we have to move together with one person, one vote democracy. I mean, that's his great legacy.
And, you know, the nation has been pretty successful economically since then. I mean, it does have some very, you know, difficult structural problems, a very high HIV rate, a high crime rate, but it really did exceed expectations, particularly those who thought the country would descend into a civil war. And it had never been a situation like what happened in South Africa before.
CONAN: Jesse, thanks very much for the call.
JESSE: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Last year, we saw this film about rugby, "Invictus." You know Nelson Mandela well. How much of that was true?
Mr. STENGEL: Well, it's - you know, it was based on a lovely book called "Playing the Enemy" by John Carlin, and I wrote a little bit about it in "Mandela's Way." You know, what is - what was - the truth of it was, you know, one of the chapters in my book is, you know, Know Your Enemy.
Mr. STENGEL: And one of the things that Mandela did when he was in prison is he taught himself Afrikaans, he studied Afrikaner history, he memorized Afrikaans poetry. And part of learning about, you know, the Afrikaan, you know, the white South African, basically, who had imposed apartheid on that country was that their favorite sport was rugby. And, you know, Mandela always said to appeal to people, you have to appeal to their head and their heart. And him understanding rugby, embracing rugby, was a way of appealing to the Afrikaner's heart, and he hoped the heart of the nation.
And so it became a kind of symbol and even metaphor for what Mandela was trying to achieve as a whole. So I mean, the basic truth of it, I think, is absolutely correct and fair.
CONAN: There is another chapter you write in your book. We think of Nelson Mandela as, if anything else, utterly fearless, and according to what you write, nothing could be further from the truth.
Mr. STENGEL: Well, he - you know, one of the things, Neal, that I found so fascinating and amazing when I was talking to him - and we did many, many, many hours of interviews for "Long Walk to Freedom" - was he would often say, you know, I was terrified or I was very scared that the guard was going to assault me or - he was constantly saying or often said, you know, that he was feeling fear. And at first, I just thought it was amazing. I mean, here is one of the greatest heroes of 20th century, one of the greatest heroes ever, expressing this fear. And I would ask him about it, and he would say, well, Richard, it's - it would be irrational not to be afraid, wouldn't it?
And what I realized was that part of his courage is that he would admit to being scared. But part of his courage was him analyzing his own situation and saying, look, I'm a symbol, I'm a leader. I feel fear here, but I have to camouflage it. I have to, as he often said, put up a front.
So all of - many of these occasions when other prisoners or other people or other South Africans looked up to Mandela as this fearless hero, he was, you know, feeling same kind of anxieties and fears and trepidations that we all feel, but he managed to rise above it. I mean, that is what makes him a great hero, I think.
CONAN: One of the great stories Richard Stengel tells in "Mandela's Way" is about an airplane flight that Nelson Mandela took with one of his bodyguards, a man named Mike(ph), who, halfway through the flight, a twin-prop-plane, and one of the propellers stop turning, Nelson Mandela looked up from his newspaper and noticed that and told Mike to inform the pilot and went back to his newspaper.
Mike said he was utterly terrified of this, but looked at Mandela, he was just calmly reading his newspaper, landed. And then later, Richard Stengel took a car ride with Nelson Mandela, who told him, I was absolutely terrified up there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. STENGEL: Now, it was - it's - and again, talking to Mike afterwards - I mean, Mike said the only thing that calmed him and he - this was probably his, you know, second or third airplane trip in his whole life - was that even while the, you know, the plane was landing, Mandela was just very calmly reading the newspaper like he was, you know, commuting in from his suburban home to the office.
And again, as Mandela said, that was him putting up a front, pretending not to be scared, and that calmed Mike and it probably calmed the pilots and calmed all the people on the ground.
CONAN: The name of the book is "Mandela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to Dan(ph). Dan's on the line from Wilmington, Delaware.
DAN (Caller): Hi. I was wondering what impact or effect did Dr. King and the American civil rights movements of the '60s have on Nelson Mandela and his freedom struggle in South Africa?
Mr. STENGEL: You know, Dan, it's a good question and it's - and there's probably a slightly disappointing answer to Americans and I count myself in that group. I mean, Mandela - you know, South Africa was, of course, a British colony. He - Mandela never much looked to America. He knew about the Constitution, the founding and Abraham Lincoln.
But the - by the time the civil rights movement in America was in high gear, he was already in prison. I mean, he - it - you know, he was imprisoned in 1964. There probably wasn't much news that they got in South Africa in those days from America. Remember that part of a totalitarian government that South Africa had was that it kept out news like that. So he wasn't all that influenced by it. I mean, he...
CONAN: Well, it was a great question. The American civil rights movement was, of course, built on the example of Gandhi and nonviolence. And clearly, that was not the path chosen by Nelson Mandela and the ANC.
Mr. STENGEL: But, Neal, as you know, Gandhi spent his formative years in South Africa. And Gandhi was, indeed, a great influence on the ANC and Nelson Mandela. It really wasn't until, you know, the very early '60s that the ANC renounced nonviolence. I mean, nonviolence was - they embraced it, partly from that Gandhian tradition.
But as Mandela told me at the time - and I write about it on the book -you know, he had won overarching goal, which was to bring freedom to his people and his nation. And everything else was a tactic or a strategy, as he would say. And he said to me very, very frankly, you know, nonviolence as far as I was concerned was a tactic. It wasn't a moral imperative or principle. And that's a pretty hard truth about Nelson Mandela.
CONAN: Interesting. We were talking with some of the veterans of SNCC last week, celebrating their 50th anniversary down at Shaw College in North Carolina, indeed. They were talking very much along the same lines: nonviolence was a tactic.
Let's see we can get another caller on the line. Thank you very much, Dan. Let's go to Craig(ph). Craig with us from Cedar Rapids in Iowa.
CRAIG (Caller): Well, you almost answered my question. I just wondered how much Nelson Mandela was familiar with and followed Gandhi, and did Martin Luther King, was he a student of Gandhi too?
CONAN: Well, he was a student of Gandhi. But yes, Craig, a little bit more about Gandhi's relationship to the ANC.
Mr. STENGEL: Yes. I mean, the ANC certainly followed Gandhi's model in South Africa. Remember, Gandhi was then - I mean, he was an Indian lawyer in South Africa. And the protest he was leading was - weren't for everybody. It was for Indian South Africans, and to get them to have at more privileges and more equality before the law.
The ANC was then a completely African and black organization. And they watched what Gandhi did, and they learned from it. In fact, you know, it was only later that the ANC even opened its doors to non-Africans and to Indians. And the Indian members of the ANC were a great influence on Mandela. His - one of his great, great comrades all those years in prison was Ahmed Kathrada. Kathrada was a great student of Gandhi, and that helped educate Mandela into the Gandhian ways, satya-agraha, which eventually, of course, they renounced.
CONAN: Hmm. We just have a few seconds left with you. And I wanted to ask you, so much of your book is about your personal experience with Nelson Mandela, everything from the shine of his smile to the profound disappointment of his frown.
Mr. STENGEL: Yes. I mean - and, Neal, as you know, I mean, he was a huge influence in my life. I mean, he urged me to marry my wife. He's godfather to my two sons. You know, he changed my life profoundly. And again, you know, having to spend a certain number of years of my life thinking what would Nelson Mandela do is something that's a pretty good exercise for everybody. So it's - partially the book is just - is partially my gratitude and to teach those lessons that he learned at a fraction of the cost that he had to pay.
CONAN: "Mandela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage." Richard Stengel, thanks very much for your time today.
Mr. STENGEL: Thank you so much, Neal.
CONAN: You can read more about how Mandela's years in prison molded him and taught him important lessons about how to be a leader in an excerpt at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Tomorrow, Political Junkie day. Ken Rudin is with us. Join us for that.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.