Intimate, Raw and Revealing: Nelson Mandela as you've never heard him before

"We stood on our feet. We fought back. We fought back to keep the idea of liberation alive."

- Nelson Mandela

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 Mandela Tapes (audio runs 54:00)

From The Mandela Tapes:

Rick Stengel : But, I mean, there's still things they could have done to you. They could have assaulted you. They could have tortured you.

Nelson Mandela: Yes. Once you reach that stage, you don't really mind what they do to you

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.

From The Mandela Tapes:

Robin Benger: For me, Churchill and Mandela are the two great figures of the 20th century. Churchill defeated Nazism, and Mandela didn't defeat racism, because it still rears its ugly head, but it's a road map for how to overcome racism and poverty.

Hear more interviews with figures from Nelson Mandela's past on The Current.

The interviews are personal and intimate; as you'll see in this animated excerpt from the tapes:

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See more videos about The Mandela Tapes on CBC News.

Rick Stengel and Robin Benger

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?

Rick Stengel: 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?

RS: 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?

RS 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.

RS: '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?

RS: 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)

While putting together The Mandela Tapes there were a few great pieces of audio we couldn't fit into the final broadcast. Here are two examples:

Castro and Gaddafi

In this clip Nelson Mandela speaks about being supported by Fidel Castro and Muammar al-Gaddafi in the early years of the apartheid struggle.

Mandela speaking about Castro and Gaddafi (audio runs 3:53)

Life in Prision

The second clip is about the horrific conditions that Mandela and other ANC members were subjected to when first put in prison

Mandela speaks about life in prison (audio runs 2:47)
The second clip is about the horrific conditions that Mandela and other ANC members were subjected to when first put in prison. Mandela's retelling of this period of his life is compelling, but the tape quality is poor, so it wasn’t included in the final doc. Here's the transcript to help you follow along.

“The first year or so, the first few years, the idea was to break our spirits and to make us realize that we were in prison, prisoners and that for us to challenge white minority rule was a disaster, something that must not be tried. And they, were very cruel. There was one of our…this chap had an honors degree and he was arrested for sabotage… sent to Robben Island. They assaulted him and broke his shoulder, without any provocation. There is another intellectual, Neville Alexander…and this chap was a graduate of a German University where he got his doctorate …they beat him up, you see, and almost blew his eardrum. In another case, they buried a chap in sand, alive, asked him to dig himself and they put him in the sand and closed him up, except his head, and it was a very hot day and when he cried for water, they urinated, water, urinated into his mouth. There were extreme cases of that nature.”