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Prison was Mandela’s greatest teacher

In “Mandela’s Way,” TIME magazine editor Richard Stengel recounts the moments in which Nelson Mandela, “the grandfather of South Africa,” was tested, and shares the wisdom he learned. After spending three years with Mandela, Stengel has distilled countless hours of intimate conver­sation into 15 essential life lessons. In this excerpt, he writes about his initial meetings with the former South African president.

From Chapter one
My path to Mandela was an accidental one. I first went to South Africa by chance: I took the place of another journalist who canceled his trip at the last minute. Based on that trip, I wrote a book about small-town life in South Africa under apartheid. When the editor of Mandela’s memoir-to-be stumbled across my book, he offered me the chance to work with Mandela on his life story.

That’s how I found myself in Johannesburg in December of 1992, waiting to meet Nelson Mandela. It was a difficult, treacherous time in South African history; the country was in danger of descending into civil war. Mandela had been out of prison for less than three years and was struggling to consolidate his power, and move the country toward the first democratic elections in its history. Working on his autobiography was not exactly number one on his “to do” list — but he wanted to tell his story.

He kept me waiting for nearly a month before our first meeting. And when we finally met, I almost capsized the project. I was sitting in the anteroom outside his old office in ANC headquarters, waiting for him to emerge. Instead, I looked up and he was headed down the hallway toward me from the other direction. He walked slowly, in a controlled, almost slow-motion way. The first thing I noticed was his skin — it’s a beautiful caramel color, a soft, yellowish brown. His features are beautifully molded, with high cheekbones and an almost Asian cast. He is six-foot-two, and everything about him — his head, his hands — seems a little larger than life. As he came closer, I stood up.

“Ah, you must be ...” he said, and then waited for me to fill in the blank.

“Richard Stengel,” I said, and he put out his hand. It was fleshy, warm, and dry; his fingers as thick as sausages, the skin still rough from decades of hard labor.

He looked me over. “Ah,” he said with a smile, “you are a young man.” The last two words were pronounced as one: youngman. This was clearly not a compliment. He gestured for me to come into his office. It was large and formal and completely tidy. It looked like a show office but it was not. He paused to have a word with his assistant, a brisk, tiny woman who handed him a paper to sign. He took the paper slowly and deliberately; it was obvious that he did everything in a very deliberate way. Then he sat down at his desk and began to read it. He wasn’t scanning it, he was reading it — every word. He then wrote his name slowly at the bottom, as though he was still perfecting his signature.

He walked over and sat in the well-worn leather chair opposite the couch. He asked me when I had arrived. His voice was slightly foggy, like a trumpet with a mute on it.

“Did you come over just for this project or for something else as well?” he asked.

My heart sank. His question implied that the autobiography was not quite enough to justify a trip on its own. I said I had come solely for the book. He nodded. He does not waste words.

He told me that he was planning on going on holiday on December 15, and that his staff had set aside four or five days for us to talk. He added that he hoped we could finish the project before his vacation, which was ten days away. I had spent a month of making unanswered calls trying to see him and several months of preparation and research, so it was perhaps the pent-up frustration that led me to say to him, in a slightly raised voice, “Four or five days? If you think you can produce this book in four or five sessions, you’re ... you’re” — I could not think of the right word — “deluding yourself.”

I had been in Mandela’s presence for less than ten minutes and I had suggested that he did not have a firm grip on reality. He regarded me with a slightly raised eyebrow and then stood up. He was ready for me to go. He then walked back to his desk, buzzed his assistant, and said, “Mr. Stengel is here and we are trying to work out a schedule.” He said that he had an engagement that evening and that he didn’t mean to rush me, but that I should speak to his assistant on Monday morning. With that, I was out of his office — and perhaps, out of his life.

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    Nelson Mandela

    Nelson Mandela: A revolutionary's life

    View images of civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, who went from anti-apartheid activist to prisoner to South Africa's first black president.

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    Nelson Mandela was born in a small village in South Africa's eastern Cape in 1918, the youngest son of a counselor to the chief of the Thembu clan. He is pictured in about 1950, six years after he founded the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu.

    Mandela died on Dec. 5, 2013, at the age of 95.

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    Mandela, center, meets with fellow ANC Youth League leaders Walter Sisulu, left, and Harrison Motlana during the "Defiance Campaign" trial at the Supreme Court in Johannesburg in 1952. The campaign encouraged people to defy the apartheid laws, a system of strict racial segregation meant to ensure the continued economic and political dominance of white South Africans. Mandela was given a suspended prison sentence.

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    Mandela (2nd from right) returns to court in 1956. Alongside 155 other activists Mandela was charged with high treason, but the charges against him were dropped after a four-year trial.

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    Mandela married his second wife Winnie Madikizela in 1958, and they went on to have two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce in 1996.

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    Mandela gives a speech to the African Congress in 1961. The ANC had been outlawed the previous year and Mandela went underground, leaving South Africa in 1962 to undergo military training and gather support abroad.

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    Returning to South Africa, Mandela was captured and sentenced to five years for incitement and illegally leaving the country. In 1964 he was among eight men sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial after being convicted of conspiracy and sabotage. In this picture taken in June 1964, the eight men leave the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, their fists raised in defiance through the barred windows of the prison van.

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    Mandela's daughter Zinzi, center, and other Cape Town University students stage a demonstration on August 29, 1985 demandting the release of jailed ANC activists.

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    Winnie Mandela raises her fist in a black power salute on July 17, 1988, as she announces that a massive pop concert will be held to mark the 70th birthday of her jailed husband. As Mandela languished in prison, the international community tightened the sanctions first imposed on South Africa's apartheid regime in 1967. In 1990, President FW de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC.

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    A jubilant Sowetan holds up a newspaper announcing Mandela's release from prison at a mass rally in Soweto on Feb. 11, 1990.

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    After more than 27 years in detention, Mandela walks out of the Victor-Verster Prison in Paarl on Feb. 11, 1990, accompanied by his wife Winnie.

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    Two days after his release, Mandela addresses a rally attended by over 100 000 people at Soccer City Stadium in Soweto on Feb. 13, 1990. "The march towards freedom and justice is irreversible," he told the crowd.

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    Mandela and FW de Klerk, right, address the media following breakthrough talks between the ANC and the government at the Groote Schuur Estate in Cape Town on May 5, 1990.

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    Mandela acknowledges the applause during a speech to the United Nations in New York on June 22, 1990. Mandela urged the U.N. to maintain sanctions against South Africa until apartheid was abolished.

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    Mandela greets supporters on July 22, 1990 as he holds up high the keys of a Mercedes-Benz car that was especially built and gifted to him by workers at a plant in Mdantsana, a black township near East London. The vehicle became known as the Madiba Merc, after Mandela's clan name.

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    Nelson and Winnie Mandela join a group of clergymen and embassy officials on a visit to the Tokoza township on Dec. 12, 1990, in an effort to bring peace to the area where 83 people had lost their lives in clashes between Zulu and Xhosa factions in the previous five days.

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    Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway on Dec. 10, 1993. De Klerk would go on to serve as one of Mandela's deputy presidents.

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    Mandela campaigning in Mmabatho on March, 15, 1994 in the lead-up to South Africa's first democratic and multiracial general election.

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    Mandela smiles broadly as he casts his vote in Oshlange, a black township near Durban, in the historic election on April 27, 1994.

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    Mandela takes the oath on May 10, 1994, during his inauguration in Pretoria as the country's first black president. "The time for the healing of the wounds has come," Mandela said. "The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us."

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    Mandela congratulates South Africa's rugby captain François Pienaar before handing him the William Webb trophy after his team's victory over New Zealand in the final of the Rugby World Cup at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on June 24, 1995. "It was on that day that he captured the hearts of white South Africa," said the author John Carlin, who wrote a book, later turned into an Oscar-nominated movie, about the significance of Mandela's embrace of the largely-white rugby team.

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    Mandela and Pope John Paul II listen to national anthems after meeting at Johannesburg International Airport on Sept. 16, 1995, at the start of the pope's first official visit to South Africa.

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    Mandela lays a brick at the Rolihlahla primary school in Ikhutseng, Warrenton, in the Northern Cape Province, on Aug. 31, 1996. Mandela's government launched a major reconstruction and development programme in an attempt to address South Africa's socioeconomic problems, but poor housing, crime and unemployment continued to blight the country.

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    Mandela shows U.S. President Bill Clinton Cell No. 5 at Robben Island, where Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years, on March 27, 1998. Clinton lauded Mandela for surviving the experience without "having his heart turned into stone."

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    On his 80th birthday, July 18, 1998, Mandela married Graca Machel, the widow of former Mozambican President Samora Machel.

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    Archbishop Desmond Tutu, right, hands Mandela the five-volume report produced by his Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Oct. 29, 1998. The report revealed human rights abuse by various political parties during apartheid. Accepting the report, Mandela acknowledged that the wounds of the period of repression and resistance were too deep to have been healed by the TRC alone.

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    Mandela retired from public office after serving five years as president. On June 16, 1999 he attended the inauguration of his successor Thabo Mbeki, left, at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

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    Mandela hugs Babalwa Tembani, 20, who was infected with the HIV virus after being raped by her uncle at the age of 14, on a visit to the Nolungile Clinic in Khayelitsha, Cape Town on Dec. 12, 2002. In 2005 Mandela's eldest son Makgatho died of an AIDS-related illness. Announcing Makgatho's death, Mandela said "Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it, because [that is] the only way to make it appear like a normal illness."

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    Mandela holds the World Cup trophy alongside Desmond Tutu on May 15, 2004 in Zurich, Switzerland, after South Africa won the right to host the soccer tournament in 2010. Mandela played a key role in South Africa's bid for the event, and appeared at the closing ceremony.

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    Mandela celebrates his 86th birthday flanked by his wife Graca Machel, left, and ex-wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela, right, in his home town of Qunu in the Eastern Cape on July 18, 2004.

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    Mandela celebrates his 89th birthday with a group of young people at the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund in Johannesburg on July 24, 2007. After his retirement from politics Mandela remained involved in social issues through the Children's Fund and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a charity set up in 1999.

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    Brian May performs at the 46664 concert in celebration of Nelson Mandela's life, held at Hyde Park in London on June 27, 2008. The event was organized to raise funds for Nelson Mandela's HIV/AIDS "46664" campaign, named after his prison number. Exactly 46,664 people were expected to attend the event, which also celebrated the former South African president's 90th birthday on July 18.

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    With his wife at his side, Mandela blows out the candles on his 91st birthday in Johannesburg on July 18, 2009.

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    U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama visits Mandela at his home in Johannesburg on June 21, 2011, accompanied by her mother and daughters.They are pictured reading his newest book, titled "Nelson Mandela by himself."

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    Mandela receives the African Nation Congress centenary torch from ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete at his home in Qunu on May 30, 2012. The original torch was lit during the party's 100th birthday celebrations earlier in 2012, before a replica was presented to Mandela at his home.

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  • Image: School children read the history of former South African President Nelson Mandela written on a chalkboard, ahead of the opening of a container library by the Bill Clinton foundation in celebration of Mandela day, at a school in Qunu

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    Schoolchildren read about Mandela's life at a school in his home village of Qunu ahead of the opening of a container library by the Bill Clinton foundation in celebration of Mandela day on July 17, 2012.

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    Nelson Mandela met with a group of American and South African students, aged from 11 to 19, at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa, on June 2, 2009.

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The following Monday evening, I received a call that Mandela would see me at seven the next morning. Promptly at seven, we sat in the same configuration as last time. “Let’s begin,” he said, as though he were a judge getting ready to launch a trial. I cleared my throat and said that I first wanted to apologize for my behavior the other day. “I’m sorry I was so, so ...” and I paused, again at a loss for the right word, “so brusque with you the other day.” The word sounded foreign and pretentious. He looked at me and smiled — a smile that was amused, understanding, and a little weary.

“You must be a very gentle young man indeed,” he said, “if you thought our conversation the other day was brusque.” And he said the word very deliberately, with a trilled r at the beginning and a hard q at the end.

I laughed.

He had been in prison for twenty-seven years with guards who, for much of that time, treated him as less than human and with a casual brutality that he took for granted. Before that he had been hunted by policemen and soldiers who regarded him as a terrorist to be stopped at all costs. He lived in a country where the white ruling class did not consider him or treat him as a full human being. All of that was a little more than brusque.

And that was the beginning of our friendship. Over the next two years, I amassed more than seventy hours of interviews with him, but that paled in comparison to the hours, days, and months we spent in each other’s company. I decided early on I would be at his side as much as he could tolerate — at meetings, events, holidays, and state trips. I spent hours with him at his home in Houghton, I traveled with him to his country home in the Transkei, and went with him to America and Europe and elsewhere in Africa. I campaigned with him, I went to negotiation sessions with him, I became, as much as I could, his shadow. I kept a diary of my time with him that eventually grew to 120,000 words. Much of this book comes from those notes.

Anyone who has spent much time with Nelson Mandela knows that it is not only a great privilege but a great pleasure. His presence is golden, luminous. You feel a little taller, a little finer. Most of the time, he is upbeat, confident, generous, fun. Even when the weight of the world was on his shoulders, he would wear it lightly. When you are with him, you feel you are living history as it is being made. He let me inside much of his life, some of his thoughts, and a little bit of his heart. He became the man who urged me to marry the South African woman who became my wife, and he eventually became godfather to my first son. I loved him. He was the cause of so many of the best things that have happened in my own life. When I left his side when the book was finally completed, it was like the sun going out of my life. We have seen each other many times over the years, and he has spent time with my two boys, who regard him as a kindly old grandfather. But he is no longer a regular presence in our lives. This book is both a thank-you for the time and affection he gave me and a gift to others who were unable to receive the benefit of his generosity and wisdom.

Nelson Mandela had many teachers in his life, but the greatest of them all was prison. Prison molded the man we see and know today. He learned about life and leadership from many sources: from his rather distant father; from the king of the Thembu, who raised him like a son; from his stalwart friends and colleagues Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo; from historical figures and heads of state like Winston Churchill and Haile Selassie; from the words of Machiavelli and Tolstoy. But the twenty seven years he spent in prison became the crucible that both hardened him and burned away all that was extraneous. Prison taught him self-control, discipline, and focus — the things he considers essential to leadership — and it taught him how to be a full human being.

The Nelson Mandela who emerged from prison at seventy-one was a different man from the Nelson Mandela who went in at forty-four. Listen to this description of the young Mandela by his closest friend and one-time law partner, Oliver Tambo, who became the head of the ANC while Mandela was in prison: “As a man, Nelson Mandela is passionate, emotional, sensitive, quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage.”

Emotional? Passionate? Sensitive? Quickly stung? The Nelson Mandela who emerged from prison is none of those things, at least on the surface. Today he would find all of those adjectives objectionable. Indeed, one of the sharpest criticisms he ever levels at anyone is that they are “emotional” or “too passionate” or “sensitive.” Time and again the words I heard him use to praise others were “balanced,” “measured,” “controlled.” The praise we give others is a reflection of how we perceive ourselves — and those are precisely the words he would use to describe himself.

How did this passionate revolutionary become a measured statesman? In prison, he had to temper his responses to everything. There was little a prisoner could control. The one thing you could control — that you had to control — was yourself. There was no room for outbursts or self-indulgence or lack of discipline. He had no zone of privacy. When I first walked into Mandela’s old cell on Robben Island, I gasped. It’s not a human-sized space, much less Mandela-sized. He could not stretch out when he was lying down. It was obvious that prison had, both literally and figuratively, molded him: There was no room for extraneous motion or emotion; everything had to be pruned away; everything had to be ordered. Every morning and every evening, he painstakingly arranged the few possessions that he was allowed in that tiny cell.

At the same time, he had to stand up every day to the authorities. He was the leader of the prisoners and could not let his side down; everyone saw or knew instantly if you backed down or compromised. He became even more acutely aware of how he was perceived by his colleagues. Though he was sequestered from the wider world, prison was its own universe, and he had to lead there as much as or more than when he emerged. And amid all this, he had time — far too much time — to think and plan and refine, and then refine some more. For twenty-seven years, he pondered not only policy, but how to behave, how to be a leader, how to be a man. Mandela is not introspective — at least not in the sense that he will talk about his inner feelings or thoughts. He often became frustrated — and sometimes irritated — when I tried to get him to analyze his feelings. He is not fluent in the modern language of psychology or self-help. The world in which he was raised was unaffected by Sigmund Freud. He broods a great deal on the past, but he rarely talks about it. There was only one moment of self-pity I ever saw. We were talking about his childhood, and he looked off into the distance and said, “I am an old man who can only live in the past.” And this was at a time when he was getting ready to be president of the new South Africa and create a new nation — the moment of his greatest triumph.

Over and over, though, I used to ask him how prison had changed him. How was the man who came out in 1990 different from the man who entered in 1962?

This question annoyed him. He either ignored it, went straight to a policy answer, or denied the premise. Finally, one day, he said to me in exasperation, “I came out mature.”

I came out mature.

What did he mean by those words? André Malraux wrote in his memoirs that the rarest thing in the world is a mature man. Mandela would agree with him. To me, those four words are the deepest clue to who Nelson Mandela is and what he learned. Because that sensitive, emotional young man did not go away. He is still inside the Nelson Mandela we see today. By maturity, he meant that he learned to control those more youthful impulses, not that he was no longer stung or hurt or angry. It is not that you always know what to do or how to do it, it is that you are able to tamp down the emotions and anxieties that get in the way of seeing the world as it is. You can see through them, and that will see you through.

At the same time, he realized that not everyone can be Nelson Mandela. Prison steeled him but it broke many others. Understanding that made him more empathetic, not less. He never lorded it over those who could not take it. He never blamed anyone for giving in. Surrendering was only human. Over the years, he developed a radar and a deep sympathy for human frailty. In some way, he was fighting for the right of every human being not to be treated the way he had been. He never lost that young man’s softness or sensitivity; he just developed a harder and more invulnerable shell to protect it.

It is impossible to write about Nelson Mandela these days and not compare him to another potentially transformational black leader, Barack Obama. The parallels are many. I went to see Mandela during the Democratic presidential primaries last year and asked him whom he preferred, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. He smiled and then waved a finger at me in the universal gesture of, You’re trying to get me in trouble. He would not answer. His restraint was characteristic. That self-control, that omnipresent filter, is something the two men share. And while it took twenty-seven years in prison to mold the Nelson Mandela we know, the forty-eight-year-old American president seems to have achieved a Mandela-like temperament without the long years of sacrifice. Obama’s self-discipline, his willingness to listen and to share credit, his inclusion of his rivals in his administration, and his belief that people want things explained, all seem like a twentyfirst-century version of Mandela’s values and persona. While Mandela’s worldview was forged in the cauldron of racial politics, Obama is creating a post-racial political model. Whatever Mandela may or may not think of the new American president, Obama is in many ways his true successor on the world stage.

But Mandela’s life is a model not just for our time but all time. The lessons you are about to read are those that I believe he learned not only in prison but over the course of his whole life. They are among the things that make him a leader and an exemplary human being. No, not everyone can be Nelson Mandela. He would tell you to be grateful for that. Fortunately, few of us have to endure in our own lives what he had to endure in his. But that does not mean these lessons are not applicable to our daily lives. They are. I know, because my life has been deepened by them. For Mandela, prison distilled the lessons of life and leadership, and I have attempted to do the same in this book. You can learn them at a fraction of the cost that he had to pay.

Excerpted from “Mandela’s Way” by Richard Stengel. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Random House.

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