In this special edition of IDEAS, you'll hear him as you've never heard him before. This program draws on 50 hours of recorded conversations with Mandela, held for many years in Johannesburg by archivists at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. IDEAS is the first radio program anywhere in the world to be given full access to these remarkable recordings.
The man chosen to record Mandela's life story was Rick Stengel, a young reporter working in South Africa for Rolling Stone magazine. From 1992 to 1996, Stengel shadowed Mandela, using his small cassette machine to record the stories which would help in the writing of Mandela's autobiography, 'Long Walk to Freedom'.
The release of the tapes was negotiated by former CBC radio producer, and now independent filmmaker, Robin Benger. He spent his early years in South Africa, was a student activist against apartheid, and was kicked out of the country because of it.
The interviews are personal and intimate; as you'll see in this animated excerpt from the tapes:
The two other key voices in the documentary are the current managing editor of Time Magazine Rick Stengel and freelance radio producer Robin Benger.
Robin Benger recently spoke to Rick Stengel about working with Nelson Mandela and the impact of that relationship. Below are a few excepts from the conversation, followed by the audio from the interview.
He hadn't done an interview in 27 years, he had no idea about the media world. How did you get under his skin?
Part of it was we just ended up spending so much time together and he came to trust me. Also because this was outside of the usual media interview process, everything we talked about was meant for the book, and it wasn't for a newspaper story or a magazine story or a web story. He understood the importance of his own autobiography because it would become a kind of bible for young people all over the world who were looking to help change their countries for the better.
How did you end up interviewing Mandela for three years?
It was more like two years and part of that was completely selfish. I mean, I was witness to history in an intimate way and I basically said to him early on after the first three weeks; I'm happy to be your sidekick or your mascot; I would like to just hang around with you every day and even if we don't have an interview session, I'd like to be with you. And he basically said fine.
Did you see your role in part as interpreting Mandela to the western world?
Yes. I've looked [back] at the transcripts and I have to say, it's embarrassing how little knowledge I had. When they hired me I had never met him before, I wasn't an expert in the history of the ANC, I had written one book about life in a small town in South Africa, so I was learning on the job.
I saw myself as a representative in a way for the general reader. If I didn't know about something, the general reader wouldn't know. Part of what I realize needed to be done was, he needed to explain his life, the story of South Africa, the story of his rebellion and revolution, and the struggle to a much larger audience and it needed to be universal as well as particular.
The transcript suggest lots of interruptions. You both must have been under enormous pressure. You were dealing with a man who could have been assassinated any moment. Give us a sense of how much pressure there was.
'It wasn't like he was the president of South Africa. But he was the head of an organization (the ANC) that had only recently been legalized and didn't have a firm structure. So, some of the interruptions came from the fact that if there was a crisis at any given time people just barged into the office. That's why when we did most of our interviews they were very early in the morning, 6 a.m., 6:30 a.m. and the idea was we wouldn't be interrupted at that hour. He's a very early riser so he gets a lot done before a lot of people get up.
But yes, part of the power of the situation was that South Africa was at a knife's edge. The country could have been plunged into civil war; they were the writing the constitution; preparing for the election; it was an incredibly rich and dangerous time in South African history and he was the pivotal person. Fortunately, he made the right call most of the time.
In your book 'Mandela's Way' you list the qualities that he represents and I'm interested in whether he had an effect on your life. Do you find yourself asking yourself what would Mandela do?
I wish I asked myself that more often than I do and certainly when I was working with him and when we were working on Long Walk to Freedom it was wonderful to have him internalized inside myself and part of the reason I wrote Mandela's Way is that I hoped that everybody could gain from that experience. There is not a human being on the planet who wouldn't benefit from saying 'What would Nelson Mandela do'.
Here is the audio from the interview between Rick Stengel and Robin Benger
Rick Stengel and Robin Benger interview (audio runs 13:30)