IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Prison was Mandela’s greatest teacher

After spending three years with Nelson Mandela, Richard Stengel has distilled countless hours of intimate conversation into 15 essential life lessons that he shares in his book, "Mandela's Way." An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

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.

Nelson Mandela: A revolutionary's life

Slideshow  36 photos

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.

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.