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12/19/2013 03:13 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2014

Writer to Writer: Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela -- A Talk With Danny Schechter

Danny Schechter is an Emmy Award-winning producer for ABC News, and the author of 16 books. He's produced and directed six documentary films about Nelson Mandela.

Danny wrote a fascinating book about Nelson Mandela, entitled Madiba: A to Z. He talked with people ranging from Thabo Mbeki to Nadine Gordimer; from Mandela's prison cellmates to his guards; from former presidents and cabinet ministers to his closest friends and family members. Madiba: A to Z paints an intimate portrait of Nelson Mandela, and wrestles with the questions Mandela himself raised: What is forgiveness? What are justice and equality? How long must the long walk to freedom go on before we are free?

First, tell us the meaning of the word Madiba.
Madiba is a tribal clan name. Mandela grew up in a tribal area and within the tribe there were many different clans. He was referred to reverentially as Madiba, which is a sign of affection and respect for a senior member of the tribe. He was part of the Madiba clan and now that name is on everyone's lips in South Africa.


How did you first meet and get to know Nelson Mandela?

I went to South Africa at the age of 25 on a mission to support the anti-apartheid movement. I'm not sure if it was an act of bravery or stupidity. 1967 were the darkest days of apartheid. I learned more and more about the country. When I got there, Mandela was beginning his life sentence on Robben Island, a draconian prison off the coast of Capetown. I didn't meet him then; in fact his image was kept off posters. There were no photographs or interviews. I just knew of him. Years later, I was producing a television series called South Africa Now, for public television in the U.S and 40 other countries. Mandela left South Africa for Zambia, where the ANC had its base. We set up an interview with him there for the Phil Donahue Show, which was seen live in the U.S. You know, they had no television in South Africa when he went to prison; yet, when he got out, he became a TV natural. He was getting interviewed by every top journalist in the world, and when we interviewed him, I was awed and embraced by him. It was a triumphant moment. I discovered the so-called hype was correct: he was an extraordinary leader; was very articulate; and very thoughtful. I ended up travelling with him to other parts of Africa; to Europe; and I helped organize a concert in Wembly, England. He came to America in June, 1990 and I was asked to cover the trip. We visited eight U.S. cities in 11 days and I had daily exposure to him. I made a film called Mandela in America, and went on to make five other films about him.

We know a good deal about his journey in life, but tell us about Nelson Mandela's inner psychological journey over the course of his life.
With the making of the movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, I realized there was still a great deal I didn't know about him. That led to Madiba: A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela. I learned that when you start getting very personal with him, a shutter comes down. He shuts off inquires he's uncomfortable with. He's had a painful past. He lost his father and mother while he was young. He lost two of his children. He lost his most active years being confined to prison. He had to "go inside" in order to survive. He became a disciplined athlete of exercise while imprisoned. He drove some of his comrades crazy by pushing them to do more exercise. That physical discipline kept him alive so long despite living under conditions of extreme deprivation: for ten years there was no hot water. He lived in the cold and slept on the cell floor. So, he came to know himself. He said he matured in prison. He had so much time for introspection and reflection. There are elements of his inner life we'll never know. He was not into self-promotion. He saw himself as part of the struggle of his people. He believed in collective leadership and was loathe speaking for the movement. He always consulted with his colleagues. He was very thoughtful. His last book was called Confessions for Myself. He felt he was flawed as a person. He always said "I'm not a saint or a savior." Even though he was mythologized and adored, he was very aware of his flaws. He was a very humble person, in addition to being celebrated.


In the chapter called "Jailed" you describe Nelson Mandela's imprisonment. Tell us about his routines, his relationships with the guards and fellow prisoners.

I interviewed some of his guards. Mandela told one guard there wasn't enough time in the day because he felt he had so much to accomplish. He had a vegetable garden. He read biographies. He taught himself Afrikaans. He learned about Islam and other things. He made time for exercise every single day. He met with his fellow prisoners. He turned the prison into what was called Mandela University. The young prisoners never had a decent education. He was deeply involved in teaching them. Among those he taught was Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa. Zuma learned English in the prison. Mandela was one of his teachers. He was also a performer in prison. He played the part of Creon in Sophocles' Antigone. He played Abraham Lincoln in a prison play. So he was very conscious of being a performer, which he was as an attorney, and had been known as a great cross-examiner.

In the chapter entitled "Forgiveness" you discuss the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Mandela's own words about forgiving those who imprisoned him. He said, "As I walked out the door toward my freedom I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind I would still be in prison." Tell us more about that aspect of Nelson Mandela.
He began seeing his jailers as human beings trapped in a cycle of fear and ignorance. They didn't understand the people in the country they lived in. Many prison guards were poor and the least educated of the Afrikaner people. He taught himself the language so he could talk to them in their own language. As a result, many of the guards became close to him and learned from him. He encouraged them to educate themselves. He promoted studies -- he wanted the guards to improve themselves -- he asked about their families and got to know their children. He could insinuate himself into peoples' lives in a way they welcomed. He was able to break through the antipathy the guards felt for the prisoners. At the end of the day, the government that had demonized him as a communist, talked to him. They realized they had to talk to him if there was going to be a settlement of the country's problems. He felt he was not a negotiator, per se, but rather, facilitated negotiations. He felt there had to be a breakthrough and felt, "this is how it starts." The breakthrough would lead not only to a new government but also to some degree of reconciliation. The racial divide is still there, though lessened. But, South Africa still has deep economic divides.

In the chapter entitled "Humble" you describe a talk you had with South African writer Nadine Gordimer and her views of Mandela as "an ordinary man." Give us some insights about that.
When he came out of prison, the world welcomed him. He was celebrated. But privately, he was in despair. He and his wife Winnie came to a parting of the ways. He was very lonely. He no longer had the camaraderie of prison. Now, he was expected to walk on water and personally deliver a whole new South Africa. He was under a great deal of pressure. He became a performer. People tend to have one image of him: a cuddly grandfather; Prince of Peace; someone who left hatred behind. We reduce him to what we would like to see. But, he was much more complicated than that. He had intense personal feelings. He was cut off from his children. His daughter said "You're the father of our country but you're not being a father to me." No matter what he did, someone demanded more from him.

Nadine Gordimer had known him before he'd gone to prison and saw him when he was released. She empathized with what he was going through. She realized he was in terrible pain though he had outlasted the people who'd wanted to kill him.

In the Chapter entitled "Global" you discuss Nelson Mandela's iconic image around the world. In that same chapter, you discuss Clint Eastwood's film Invictus and the role of the American film industry in the crafting of Mandela's global image.
Yes, the film detailed the incident where Mandela embraced rugby, a sport beloved by the Afrikaner community. He supported the rugby players, engaging the Afrikaner community and making them stakeholders in the new South Africa. Much of the hatred was based on fear and the notion that if Mandela was freed, "they're going to do to us what we did to them." There was a fear of revenge and retaliation from South Africa's blacks. He attempted to transcend that by identifying with something they were absorbed by -- rugby. He backed the team, which was a turning point.

He certainly became an important part of his country's history.
What this addresses in part, is the question of who makes history? Is it, as we learn in school, the great men such as the presidents of the United States? Is history a top-down process of great leaders? Or is it a bottom-up process of great movements; of great struggles for independence as in America's case? Or the civil rights movement? You know, events in which people themselves are mobilized to achieve great goals. With Mandela's release from prison, in a very real sense, the world came to his aid. That's what really put the pressure on the South African government, along with sanctions and U.N. resolutions, and pressure by the ANC's armed wing. It was a struggle with many different elements to it. We rarely look at history as a process. Rather, we view it as involving great dates: August 28, 1964, the march on Washington and Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech. But, there was much more going on back then. The same was true of Mandela. It's important to recognize, that in addition to Nelson Mandela, many people, movements and countries rallied around this issue.


In the chapter, "Love and Loss" you talk about his regrets.

At one point, he regretted everything. He felt he'd given his life away to the movement. He had mixed feelings about it. He was involved in the movement for so many years and no one was listening. For a long time, the U.S. government supported apartheid. The American media wasn't fully covering the story. One of the things we don't hear much about Robben Island where he was a prisoner, is that many men cracked in there. He managed not to lose his mind. At one point in the film, Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, it's dramatized. One prisoner nearly slaps a guard, but Mandela says, "No, don't do that. If you do that, they win." He became extremely disciplined. But when you keep things inside, it has an impact. None of the prisoners ever thought they would be released. He had no idea he would walk from being a prisoner to being the country's president. You can't make that up. Yet, despite all he achieved, it came at a price: he gave up a good part of his life.

Mark Rubinstein
Author of Mad Dog House and Love Gone Mad

To hear an unedited 37 minute audio of my conversation with Danny Schechter, click on the link to www.BookTrib.com

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