If you are to read any book about Nelson Mandela apart from Long Walk To Freedom, his autobiography, this is the one to turn to. Richard Stengel, its author and former Time magazine managing editor, collaborated with Mandela on his autobiography and in so doing spent three years with him. Over these years, there were periods when he spent every day with Mandela. He spoke with him, observed him, shadowed him, travelled with him, went to meetings with him, accompanied him on his four-hour morning walks, and befriended him. “He let me inside much of his life, some of his thoughts, and a little bit of his heart,” Stengel writes. “…. He eventually became godfather to my first son. I loved him.”This combination of reverence and intimacy allows Stengel to give a unique insight into the most worshipped freedom fighter of the twentieth century, one that is missing from newspaper articles in the wake of his death. Being there when the cameras and crowds weren’t, when Mandela was the man and not the leader, Stengel is able to paint a portrait of a complex, magnanimous man against the backdrop of a magnificent life and a tumultuous South Africa.
In an interview with MSNBC the day after Mandela’s death, Stengel says that we have a tendency to portray Mandela as a saint when he was in fact very human. “We’ve made him into a Santa Claus but he wasn’t, he was a revolutionary.” What Stengel means when he says this is that Mandela wasn’t beyond the flaws and foibles we all possess; his ability to overcome these is what made him who he was and what allows us to learn some very real, very applicable lessons from him.
Mandela was by no means impervious to fear and self-doubt. He recounts in the book the story of his circumcision by a river, a tradition after which all the boys shouted out a celebratory refrain (‘I am a man!) Stengel writes that even sixty years after, Mandela seemed ”almost pained” at what had happened, not because of the act but because of what he believed was his fainthearted, weak response.
“…The actual incision was as if molten lead was flowing through my veins. For seconds I forgot about the refrain and tried instead to absorb the shock of assegai by digging my head and shoulders into a grass wall. I recovered and just managed to repeat the formula “Ndiyindoda” (I am a man!) The other boys seemed much stronger and repeated the chorus promptly and clearly when each one’s turn came around.”
Mandela discovered that he must learn to be brave, that he must always look strong even if he was scared. Those close to him say that he always seemed calm but if asked, he admitted to fear; after a close call on a small plane, Mandela’s bodyguard told Stengel that Mandela sat reading his newspaper as if nothing was going on while he, naturally, fretted. When Stengel asked him about this after the plane landed, Mandela answered, “Man, I was terrified up there!”
Mandela also held extreme anger for his twenty-seven years in jail, despite popular belief to the contrary. He just hid it because it didn’t serve him in the progression of a democratic South Africa. What did set him apart from his fellow prisoners, however, was his ability to see the root causes of the injustices done to him and to black South Africans. Stengel writes,
While his colleagues saw their warders and jailers as monolithic, the embodiment of the heartless apartheid system, Mandela generally tried to find something decent and honourable in them. Ultimately, he came to see them as victims of the system as well as perpetrators of it. As he often told me, they were simple, uneducated men who had been inculcated in an unfair and racist system since they were children. Almost all were from poor families – an upbringing not all that different from most of the prisoners.
In response to Stengel’s question about how prison changed him, Mandela said, “I came out mature.” His empathy for his jailers is, surely, the ultimate form of maturity. But what he really meant was that he entered jail as an angry, impulsive young man – “passionate, emotional, sensitive, quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage,” as his best friend and former ANC leader Oliver Tambo said – adjectives that Mandela himself later found objectionable. He came out of prison measured, pragmatic, self-disciplined, calm and controlled, able to strategise and collaborate with friend and foe for a better South Africa. He became the man who was able, as an individual and as part of a collective, to bring a nation out of its history of repression and racism.
The lessons in this book are not saccharine and vague. They are real lessons from a man who used them to change himself and a nation, and they are steeped in his fascinating story.