Nelson Mandela tapes: Remembering a man 'without bitterness'

Listening to Nelson Mandela talk about himself in 'The Mandela Tapes' offers insight into how he was able to play such an extraordinary leadership role in South Africa.

Revisiting key interviews with former South African leader

Nelson Mandela in a series of intimate and raw conversations acquired by the CBC radio program "ideas". 2:14

On May 28, 2013, the CBC Radio program Ideas broadcast interviews with Nelson Mandela that were recorded in the 1990s for his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Journalist and documentary producer Robin Benger obtained unique access to the tapes, and it was the first time the recordings were broadcast at length. You can  listen to the original program online.

Listening to the way Nelson Mandela - who passed away Dec. 5, 2013 - talked about himself during the CBC Radio Ideas program "The Mandela Tapes" offers real insight into how one of the great figures of the 20th century was able to play such an extraordinary leadership role in his racially divided country.

The program is based on Mandela's conversations with a young American journalist recorded during the early part of the 1990s, a crucial decade in South Africa's history.

In February 1990, Mandela was released after 27 years in prison. At the time, his country was on the cusp of civil war, while the vast majority of its citizens continued to suffer under the apartheid regime.

A publisher had hired Rick Stengel, now the managing editor of Time Magazine, to work with Mandela on what became his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, published in 1994.

After Nelson Mandela was freed from jail on Feb. 11, 1990, accompanied by his former wife Winnie, his lack of bittnerness about being kept behind bars for 27 years amazed observers. (Reuters)

During one exchange heard during the Ideas program, Stengel asks Mandela about a quote from Mac Maharaj, one of the African National Congress (ANC) leaders who had been imprisoned along with Mandela in 1964.

Maharaj had said about Mandela: "As he has been living through prison, his anger and hatred of the system has been increasing, but the manifestations of that anger have become less visible." 

Stengel asks if that's true, and Mandela replies, "Well, that certainly is correct, in the sense that I am working now with the same people who threw me into jail, persecuted my wife, hounded my children from one school to the other.

I'm working with them and I am one of those who are saying, 'let us forget the past and think of the present'."

That ability to reconcile with people who were administering a cruel system like apartheid is something that amazed observers from the moment Mandela was finally released on Feb. 11, 1990.

Avoiding bitterness

Three days after his release, the CBC's Barbara Frum asked him during an interview at his home in Soweto: "Where do you put any bitterness, and where do you put that human appetite for satisfaction, if not revenge?"

Journalist Rick Stengel recorded interviews with Mandela that are heard at length in the Ideas program, The Mandela Tapes. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Mandela answered, not particularly eloquently, that he avoided becoming bitter by doing something positive and constructive.

When they were face-to-face in Canada four months later Frum again asked Mandela about the "magic" that explains his benevolence and inner peace.

Mandela pointed to his efforts at negotiating with the government to end apartheid and bring democracy to South Africa. "If we are going to succeed in that assignment, we must forget the past and concentrate on the present and the future. That may have helped me in sublimating every feeling of hurt and desire for revenge that I might have developed."

Three days after his release, Mandela told the CBC's Barbara Frum he avoided becoming bitter by keeping 'busy with something positive, constructive and rewarding.' He was referring to ending apartheid and bringing democracy to South Africa. (CBC)

Stengel observed that up close. In 2009, looking back, he would write that, for Mandela, "the single most important message that he wanted to send after his release: that he was a man without bitterness."

"From the moment of his release through his entire presidency and beyond, he was intent on showing people that he did not harbour any sense of grievance," Stengel adds, in his book, Mandela's Way: Fifteen lessons on Life, Love and Courage.

Asking 'what would Mandela do?'

At the end of the book Stengel writes that he would often ask himself, when confronted by a problem, "What would Nelson Mandela do?"

Stengel says the exercise always made him, "at least in those moments, a better person, calmer, more rational, more generous."

In an interview for Ideas, Stengel tells Robin Benger, who produced "The Mandela Tapes," that he wrote the book, "hoping that everybody could gain by that experience" that he had working with Mandela.

"There's not a human being on the planet who wouldn't benefit from saying, 'What would Nelson Mandela do?' in any circumstance that requires a lot of thinking and consideration. It does help put things in perspective."

While serving as South Africa's president in 1998, Mandela speaks to Mary Grace Mandela Michel, the daughter of Saint Lucia's Deputy Prime Minister, who was named after Mandela. (Reuters)

Mohamed El-Erian, the CEO of Pimco, the world's largest bond investment firm, also recommends that political and business leaders ask themselves, "What would Nelson Mandela do?"

"Mr. Mandela's example is also relevant for the advanced countries," El-Erian writes in the Huffington Post.

U.S. President Barack Obama says that he, too, looks to Mandela's example. In his foreword to Mandela's Conversations with Myself, Obama writes that he first became politically active around the divestment campaign in the early-1980s, when church groups and other activists urged boycotts and pushed companies to pull their investments out of South Afraica as a way to help end apartheid.

"Over the years, I continued to watch Nelson Mandela with a sense of admiration and humility, inspired by the sense of possibility that his own life demonstrated, and awed by the sacrifices necessary to achieve his dream of justice and equality," Obama writes.

Mandela's central principle

In another clip from the Stengel interviews that's part of the Ideas program, Mandela explains the central principle by which he lives his life. He calls it ubuntu, a word that comes from a Zulu proverb.

As Mandela tells Stengel, it "means that a person is a person because of other people."

His own presidency was still a few years away when he explained ubuntu to Stengel. "If you are a president, you are a president because your people have put you in that position. You must never forget that. You are a human being because other human beings want you to play that role of being a human being."

Of course in order to play the role that he did, Mandela had to survive 27 years of imprisonment.

In a 2004 CBC documentary, "Madiba: The Life and Times of Nelson Mandela" (also produced by Benger), Mandela says, he made it through by never parting with his dignity. "I would not and could not give myself up to despair, that way lay defeat and death."

Plus, he had a dream. "I had never lost hope that this great transformation would occur, because I always knew that down deep in every human heart there is mercy and generosity.

"No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. If people can learn to hate they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."